Tech Stuff

Avoiding the risk of fire: It can happen

Everyone involved in the automotive industry is aware of the importance of safety with regard to vehicle service work. We’re constantly reminded (in instruction sheets, in service manuals, by co-workers, etc.) to wear eye protection, to perform certain tasks in a well-ventilated area, to securely support a vehicle when hoisting, etc.

One of the obvious areas of concern (at least, it should be obvious) involves the risk of fire.

I was recently reminded of that specific concern while sitting in my truck at a traffic light, across from a general-repair shop. In the shop’s parking lot, the hood of a late-model Corsica was propped open, while the technician was fiddling in the interior (leaning inside, with his head buried). Apparently he was messing with the fuel system, (my guess is that he was switching the ignition on and off while operating the fuel pump). Either he had disconnected a fuel line, or a fuel line abruptly failed, because as he focused on his task inside the car, and without a helper observing the underhood area, a serious flame erupted in the engine bay (flames were about a foot and a half wide and were spiking about a foot high). Blissfully unaware of what was happening, the tech leisurely climbed out of the interior, wiping his hands with a rag. Naturally, my reaction was to toss the tranny into Park and run to his aid. Luckily, just as my feet hit the pavement, he noticed the small inferno and scrambled to smother the little raging barbecue pit.

Once I was certain that disaster had been avoided, I climbed back into my truck and continued on my merry way (by the way, even though he was working on the fuel system, he had no fire extinguisher anywhere near the car).

As another example: When my endurance road racing team was competing in a 24-hour race, a small underhood fire erupted in one of our team’s cars when a crew member quickly added full-synthetic oil to a hot engine, with oversplash dribbling onto a red-hot exhaust header. While our dedicated fire crew (equipped with extinguishers and wearing head-to-toe Nomex) quickly doused the flames, one of our suspension crew (who was changing front brake pads at the time) laughed and said that the underside of the engine was “dripping fire, kinda like napalm.”  

Never think that a fire is something that “will never happen to me.” Given the right set of circumstances, things can go horribly wrong in a heartbeat.

Never treat the possibility of fire casually (however remote you think the chances are). Always have at least one fire extinguisher handy (at the vehicle), and make sure that everyone in the shop actually knows how to react in an emergency and how to use an extinguisher (NEVER assume that everyone knows how to use one). And, of course, follow all sensible safety precautions: If working on a fuel system, even if you think that no liquid fuel or fuel vapors are present, make sure that the area is ventilated, and keep all sparks and flames well away from the vehicle. You know the drill, but it bears repeating. Be safe. Automotive techs throughout the country, even if we don’t personally know each other, are members of a brotherhood, and we want to keep all of our brothers safe.   ●


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