Be aware of the ways a vehicle can start a wildfire

This SUV is parked on high grass, its hot catalytic converter igniting a wildfire. Anza Valley Outlook/Diane Sieker photo

With unprecedented wildfire activity scorching California this year, fire safety is at the forefront of everyone’s minds as they go about their daily business.

“Most fires in California are started by humans,” Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at University of California Merced, said.

The blazes are caused by power lines, equipment failures, car accidents and campfires, she said.

Made of metal that can spark, equipped with exhaust that can get dangerously hot and powered by batteries or fuel that can ignite – cars, trucks, motorcycles and recreational vehicles can be to blame when a fire surges out of control.

Exhaust systems can spark as a result of the combustion process. Off-highway vehicles and dirt bikes must be equipped with spark arrestors to prevent the sparks from igniting the dry grass and brush.

Metal chains or loose car parts dragging on the pavement can create sparks that in turn can bounce to the shoulder and set weeds ablaze. The safety chains that are attached to all trailers should be checked at each stop to make sure they have not come loose, creating a fire hazard.

Even worn brakes can spark, as the metal pads or shoes come in contact with the metal drum or rotor. Drivers should always make sure their brakes are in good working order and replace parts as needed.

Bearings and suspension parts can fail, causing wheels to come loose, causing the metal car frame to strike the ground, possibly throwing sparks. Several makes and models of cars and trucks have recalls on weak suspension assemblies. Check with the car dealer for recalls. Above all, perform maintenance as needed. Losing a wheel is not only dangerous, it can cause a wildfire.

Underinflated tires can cause the metal rim of the car to contact the pavement, resulting in sparks. Check tire inflation weekly and never drive on the road with a flat tire for more distance that is required to safely turn out from traffic.

Engines get hot as they are running. Never allow the lower engine components to come in contact with weeds or other flammable substances. Doing so could result in a fire and the loss of the vehicle.

Catalytic converters work by using high heat to help disperse combustion gasses. Some operate at temperatures in excess of 1,200 F. A catalytic converter coming into contact with tinder-dry brush will start a blaze. Never park over grass or weeds. Low slung cars are more at risk because of their closeness with the ground. The emission control parts can also fail and propel white-hot pieces of metal out, possible igniting dry fuels nearby. Make sure emissions systems are in tip top shape and pay attention to the check engine light.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at