A burning car will do strange things

Engines crank over. Electric windows roll up and down. Horns blow. They’ll even start up and move. “It’s like they’re possessed,” says retired investigator Keith Fowler, who teaches others how to approach vehicle fires.

Camrose deputy fire chief Don Rosland

LESLIEVILLE — Engines crank over. Electric windows roll up and down. Horns blow. They’ll even start up and move.

“It’s like they’re possessed,” says retired investigator Keith Fowler, who teaches others how to approach vehicle fires.

Electrical shorts can spark all kinds of quirky events when vehicles catch fire, says Fowler, a former auto mechanic and engineer who gained fame by discovering a faulty ignition switch in certain years and models of a manufacturer’s vehicles.

People who witness a car fire often panic when the horn blows or smoke-blackened windows start rolling up and down. It’s usually wires crossing as insulation melts, says Fowler.

One of the most noticeable actions that electrical shorts can cause occurs when vehicles with standard transmissions have been left in gear. As the engine compartment heats up, shorted wires can cause the starter to engage, says Fowler.

That’s no problem with an automatic transmission left in park or neutral, he says.

However, with a manual transmission left in gear, whether the engine actually starts or not, the starter motor can give the car enough energy to start moving if the parking brake has not been set.

Depending on which gear it’s in and where the front wheels are pointing, the vehicle will start to drift, often with enough force to push through a garage door or wall.

People see a burning car backing onto the street or plowing through a fence and they call the 911, says Fowler: “Hey — somebody’s trying to steal a car and it’s on fire.”

Just as Fowler is explaining the different effects of vehicle fires, the front tire explodes on an car that has been deliberately set on fire as part of the 2009 Hot Wheels training seminar, held at Rocky Mountain House and Leslieville.

Fowler doesn’t miss a beat. He knew it was coming.

Small explosions are common as a car burns. Air conditioning, air bags, certain types of struts and other pressurized units will let go with tremendous force when the pressure is suddenly released.

Each fire, even in the most controlled situation, has its own personality, he says.

“Fire is random. Sometimes they burn really well. Sometimes they don’t.”

Fowler has taught seven or eight Hot Wheels courses for the Alberta Fire Investigators. On Sunday, he heads to Kentucky for another seminar.

The only difference will be the fee. Fowler says he volunteers his time for courses within Alberta, but charges “lots” of money to go outside of country.


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