Is it enough to just walk away from a blazing car fire?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Apr 01, 2011

Dear Tom and Ray:

Last week my fiancee's father was driving his 1987 Buick from the farm into town. A couple of hundred yards away from the house (and about .1 mile from the highway) on the gravel road, the car caught fire. Her dad, instead of using his cell phone to call the fire department, left the car on the road and walked home to tell his wife. He told her it'd burn itself out. A short while later, they were in the kitchen and were -- seriously -- surprised to see the fire department outside putting out the blazing car. So, (1) what the heck kind of family am I marrying into? And (2) we know that it's toxic, in poor taste and dangerous, but would the car actually have pulled a "movie moment" and exploded? Or, like her father says, would it have burned itself out? -- Seth


TOM: I think Pops REALLY wants a new Buick, Seth. He was afraid that if he put out the fire, they'd somehow be able to patch up his car, and he'd have to drive it for another five years. So he walked away to make sure it had ample time to caramelize.

RAY: That's a very dangerous thing to do. It certainly can explode. What happens is that fires usually start in the engine compartment. Sometimes they can burn themselves out, if they run out of nearby materials to combust.

TOM: But lots of times they keep burning. And then they spread to the undercarriage, and then the tires, and the interior. Once a fire spreads, it easily can melt the fuel lines, or cause the pressure in the fuel tank to rise so much that the tank breaks.

RAY: And even if the car doesn't explode like the Death Star in "Star Wars," any rupture in the fuel lines or fuel tank will result in a huge and violent increase in flames.

TOM: That could set nearby fields, and then houses, on fire, which won't endear Pops to his neighbors.

RAY: So, whenever you have a car that catches fire that you can't address immediately with the proper fire extinguisher, you should move away from the car and call the fire department.

TOM: What kind of family are you marrying into, Seth? One that needs to work on its communication skills. If Pops had been able to say, "Ma, I really want one of them new Buicks," perhaps this could have been avoided.

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