Auto fires: Debate rages... along with two more blazes
There were two car fires in Charlottesville on Friday, January 14, bringing the two-day total to three, as debate rages about the cause of the one that destroyed a driver education car at the Albemarle County gas pumps.
"We do seem to have more vehicles burn this time of year," says Charlottesville Fire Chief Charles Werner. "I don't know why that is."
However, ever since a scary experience in the 1980s, Charlottesville resident Steven W. Shifflett has held a theory about car fires–- at least the ones that occur at gas pumps. And his theory runs contrary to the contention of the Charlottesville Fire Marshal.
Shifflett says he learned the hard way when he stopped for fuel at the Wilco station on U.S. 250 on Pantops Mountain on his way to a party one cold New Year's Eve 25-30 years ago. While waiting for his tank to fill, Shifflett says, he was combing his hair while wearing a wool sweater and coat, a set of circumstances that may have stoked the static electricity in his body.
As he reached for the fuel nozzle, Shifflett saw "the largest spark I have ever seen" shoot between his fingertips and the nozzle.
"People don't know how lucky they are," says Shifflett, who says that neither he nor his vehicle were harmed in the incident. If the tank had been overflowing, as it reportedly was in the incident at the Albemarle County Office Building, that creates a "sure way" to turn a scary spark into a full-blown conflagration, says Shifflett.
The Thursday morning car fire by the fuel pumps at the County Office Building was described by the Fire Chief as “extremely intense.” A Charlottesville Fire Department report notes that 18 people in eight units responded to the blaze.
The Chief says that Charlottesville Fire Marshal W.A. Hogsten concluded that the overflowing gas or its fumes probably ignited when, spilling under the driver's ed car, they reached kindling temperature from the presence of the vehicle's catalytic converter, a pollution-control device that can run over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
"The Fire Marshal can say anything he wants," says Shifflett, "but in my opinion it was static electricity."
Shifflett was later shown a copy of the Fire Marshal's report which indicates that although the exact point of origin could not be determined, the witnesses, interviewed together, appeared to agree that the fire began below.
Still, Shifflett says he feels vindicated on one point because the report indicates that instructor, Susie Neuhauser, got back inside the car while the car's tank was filling–- and then over-filling.
"They don't know how dangerous it is," says Shifflett, noting that getting back into a refueling car is a recipe for static electricity. Neuhauser could not be reached for comment.
The report also notes that one passenger, a student at Monticello High School, was trying to exit the vehicle when flames pushed him back. The report doesn't say how the student got out.
As for the Friday car fires, the first occurred in the Kmart parking lot shortly before noon. The second erupted in a Buick Riviera in traffic on U.S. 29 at the main entrance to the Seminole Square shopping center.
There remain other ways of starting a car fire in cold weather. One that exploded to life for many Atlanta television viewers came Monday, January 10 during that city's unprecedented deep snowfall. A driver, vexed by his BMW's inability to gain traction, decided to spin his rear tires as a camera of NBC affiliate WXIA rolled for a live shot. The tires eventually burned up; so did the BMW.
Besides his own brush with a fire, Shifflett mentions a service station surveillance video uploaded to YouTube that offers dramatic evidence of how static electricity can create a fueling fire in the winter. In the video, a young gasoline customer repeatedly adjusts her sweater, climbs back in her vehicle and exits it again–- all the while refraining from touching anything that might ground her body's growing charge of static electricity.
Shifflett recommends touching something metal away from fuel and fumes to safely discharge electricity before reaching for a nozzle.
And he concedes that the exact cause of the County Office Building fire may never be known, but he thinks static-electricity theory trumps catalytic-converter theory. "I don't think gas running under a car is likely to light," says Shifflett, "especially on a cold morning."