A Crash Course on Vehicle Fires Expert Article

In this article, the fire investigators at Robson Forensic provide an introduction to vehicle fire investigations, which can include cars, trucks, RVs, agricultural tractors, industrial mobile equipment, etc. They describe the importance of researching the vehicles in each incident and describes details from a recent case.

Vehicle Fire Expert Witness

Vehicle Fire Investigations

A heavily burned vehicle can be bewildering to the uninitiated. After the plastic and rubber parts have melted away and much of the metal surfaces have begun to oxidize, it takes a trained professional to make sense of the damage and determine how and why the fire began. The variety of vehicle types and configurations can exacerbate the situation; engine compartments and wiring diagrams vary tremendously from vehicle to vehicle. Even components within the vehicle will be different depending on make, model, production year, and trim levels. It takes a trained fire investigator to evaluate the fire, heat patterns, and events leading up to the fire, to reliably determine what happened.

As part of each investigation, the origin and cause expert must research the engine and passenger compartment schematics of the incident vehicle. Once the investigator narrows down the area of origin, they will rely on vehicle schematics to understand which components and assemblies were located within the areas of interest. There may be times that a vehicle or electrical engineer is needed to pinpoint the exact cause or failure, but it is typically more efficient and cost effective to begin these investigations with a dedicated origin and cause expert.

Case Example – Fire After Vehicle Service

In this particular case, a Honda Pilot caught fire a few weeks after having its refrigeration system serviced. The initial origin and cause theory was that the service job was done incorrectly and that refrigerant was leaking from the system. Investigators believed that this leaking fluid ignited when it came into contact with heat from the catalytic converter. Robson Forensic was retained to perform a separate investigation to determine origin and cause.

Vehicle Fire Expert Photo Figure1

The mechanic had been working on the left (passenger) side of the engine compartment to recharge the A/C refrigerant (blue arrow), located in the same area as the catalytic converter. However, if you note the damage to the radiator, as shown by the red arrow, the heat was higher on the right side of the engine compartment . Higher temperatures are noted on the right side with clean burning evident on the hood (yellow arrow), and the heat damage on the battery (pink arrow). Battery damage is more evident in figure 2.

Vehicle Fire Expert Photo Figure 2

Through proper analysis of evidence, it was determined that the area of origin was in the right (driver) side of the engine compartment, not the area where the mechanic had been working.

Vehicle Fire Expert Photo Figure 3

The photo above is an exemplar Honda Pilot, representing how the engine bay looked prior to the fire. Notice the battery, as a reference point, located on the right (driver) side of the vehicle.

This case example demonstrates why it is important to conduct a proper origin and cause analysis for each incident. A highly trained, professional fire investigator will not only possess the knowledge and skills to evaluate the physical evidence, they will also take the time to prepare and research for each assignment.

Vehicle Fire Investigations

Robson Forensic is particularly well equipped to investigate complex vehicles fires. Within our firm we have Certified Vehicle Fire Investigators, as well as engineers who specialize in automotive and electrical systems. After our fire investigators perform an inspection to determine the origin of the fire, they have access to the collective expertise of the engineering groups to pinpoint a precise cause.

For more information visit our Vehicle Fire practice page

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Peter J. Leiss, Automotive Engineer & Crash Expert

Peter J. Leiss, P.E., C.F.E.I., C.V.F.I.

Automotive Engineer & Crash Expert
PJ is an expert in vehicle engineering and crash reconstruction. He commonly investigates and testifies in matters pertaining to vehicle crashworthiness, vehicle performance/handling dynamics, and… read more.


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