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Off Road Racing Fire Safety - Don't Burn

Posted in How To on January 1, 2010
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Stop, drop, and roll is what they always tell you to do should you or your clothing catch fire. Good knowledge of how to put out a fire is handy, but as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Your best bet is to try to avoid ever having to deal with a fire situation, yet you'll want to be prepared should you need to deal with the unfortunate event.

Gas tank ruptures are far less common, nor are they as dramatic as scenes depicted in action movies. But they can occur and cause fuel to catch fire and accelerate the burning. Gas tank explosions are actually fairly rare. Often the inlet or outlet connections will burn off leaving the liquid contents exposed to burn. The fuel cell in the back of this racer caught fire from another source and the gas pool burned long and hot. The shock reservoirs also exploded. The spare tire and aluminum wheel burned/melted off the back end.

We're often busy working on our next vehicle modification or out playing in our rigs, but tragedy can strike, and sometimes in the form of fire. Vehicle engine fires can occur when a motor overheats and causes nearby materials to ignite or fluids reach their flash point and burst into flame. At that point, you may or may not be able to detect the initial burning depending on how enclosed the vehicle is and where you are sitting.

Getting caught inside a vehicle that is actively burning can be a frightening time. We've talked with several people who have experienced it firsthand and close-proximity fire can quickly cause you to panic and start to loose rational thinking processes. Your goal is to get yourself and others out and away from the vehicle.

We contacted Assistant Fire Chief Vance Gray at a local Gilbert, Arizona, fire station to get some input from someone who deals with fire situations on a daily basis. He told us that most vehicle fires tend to start in the engine compartment and can grow there in the presence of a number of flammable fluids. Of course, your safest course of action is to stop the vehicle and then get as far from it as you can. However, in some situations owners will attempt to extinguish the fire themselves. There are a few things you may want to know.

Fire Extinguishers
It makes good sense to keep fire extinguishers in your vehicles (and in your home, garage, and shop too). While a portable unit can't effectively stop a raging fire, it may help to stop a small fire before it gets out of control and completely destroys the vehicle. It may also help to keep the fire subdued until the fire department arrives to completely put out whatever is burning.

Car fires pose a hazardous situation in several ways. First, there is the obvious threat of the heat itself that can destroy both property and human tissue. Second, is the presence of hazardous fumes from the burning of fuel and other materials. Vehicles contain large amounts of plastics, rubber, and other substances that can produce toxic fumes and may contain carcinogens when they burn. Exposure to these fumes can cause lung and respiratory damage, depending on the composition and length of time you breathe in the harmful toxins. Carbon monoxide is also produced during this burning, and can be deadly along with being odorless, colorless, and tasteless.

When a car is burning it can produce intense heat of 1,500 degrees F or more. Danger is present due to shooting flames near the car and there is the possibility of component rupture due to heat. Items such as shock absorbers, hatch struts, or reservoirs can burst under this heat. Other parts of the vehicle that contain oils or fluids can also eject a seal or other part, resulting in dangerous shrapnel. Burning tire rubber can be ejected and batteries can explode or seep acid under heated conditions.

It takes three ingredients to produce fire: heat, fuel and oxygen. If any of these three are absent, the combustion process cannot take place. Your best efforts are obviously in preventing the conditions for a fire to ever start. In a vehicle, this can mean not allowing the engine to get excessively hot and not allowing accumulation of leaking fluids to remain on the outside of the engine.

Should your vehicle catch fire, the safest action is to simply exit and move away from the vehicle. Your life and good looks are always more valuable than even the coolest truck you just labored long and hard to build. However, there are times you may choose to fight a fire on your own. A little knowledge of extinguishers and their optimal use can help.

Types of fires are defined by classes with the most common being Class A, B and C. A fire extinguisher will be labeled according to the classes of fires it can effectively combat.

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These classes are defined as:
Class A: Ordinary combustibles such as wood, cloth, paper, rubber, and many plastics.
Class B: Flammable liquids such as gasoline, oil and oil-based paint.
Class C: Energized electrical equipment including wiring, fuse boxes, circuit breakers, machinery and appliances. (The conductivity of the extinguishing agent is important.)
Class D: Combustible metals such as magnesium, titanium, etc.

Our fire chief recommended you start spraying an extinguisher as you approach any fire you may be fighting then begin a back and forth sweeping action as is often described in the extinguisher manual. Spray at the base of the fire for greatest effect.

Portable fire extinguishers are rated according to the size of fire they can handle. The larger the rating number, the larger the size of the fire that the extinguisher can put out. But, larger size translates to heavier weight and you want to ensure you can effectively hold and maneuver any extinguisher you purchase.

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Shop Fire Safety
Another area of interest we thought we'd mention is that of our home garages or shop spaces. It's a place where we can have open flames or sparks, so they are potential areas that could catch fire and the presence of flammable fluids, oils, greasy parts and rags can sometimes increase the chance of fire, and that fire could spread quickly.

Areas should remain well ventilated to prevent the buildup of combustible fumes.

In general, good housekeeping and keeping the area clean can help reduce the chance of a fire occurring. Oily rags or those with solvents in them can ignite spontaneously. It's a poor idea to let these accumulate. It's wise to dispose of them properly or keep them stored in a waste can designed to prevent combustion.

If your shop includes woodworking tools, you have another potential hazard. Sawdust and wood shavings can quickly ignite with a spark source. This debris is best kept in check and cleaned so that a significant amount does not accumulate over time.

Fire Suppression Systems
A common fire safety device found on competition vehicles is that of a fire suppression system. This is essentially a fire extinguisher mounted on-board routed to several spray nozzles that are typically aimed in the engine compartment where a fire is most likely to start.

This fire suppression system from Firefox includes a pressurized cylinder, mounting hardware, and all the plumbing components to setup an on-board system. Their fire systems use an internal bladder so the system is fully functional at all angles, and you still retain full protection if you're flipped on your roof. An off-road race car or truck would often use a 10-pound bottle such as this, but larger and smaller sizes are available.

We spoke with Nicole Rebyanski at Firefox Industries, (866) 347-3369, about the ins and outs of suppression systems. She mentioned that systems such as the ones they manufacture may utilize either a foam agent or a clean gas to suppress a fire. The means of activation may be manually controlled (button or cable release), or triggered by a semi-automatic specifically-placed thermostat in the vehicle.

These systems allow for quick action in the event of a fire and allow for a direct attack against the fire without requiring a human to move towards the area of danger. They can be deployed quickly to stop further damage to the vehicle, at the same time allowing the occupants to concentrate on exiting the vehicle for their own safety.

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