Auto fires: Debate rages... along with two more blazes

news-carfire-seminoleA Buick Riviera burned around noon on Friday on U.S. 29 outside of Seminole Square shopping center.

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."


That Atlanta video with the BMW fire was priceless. Just another jackarse with a Beamer getting his comeuppance. Hooray!

This video has little to do with the local car fire. Except for the fact that it shows people exercise no common sense whatsoever in very dangerous situations. What were these people thinking? If the falling spears of ice had struck any of them, they could have been seriously injured or killed.

Oh my God, did I summon the all-knowing spirit of the subliminal distraction dude? And apparently the Tucson shooting was caused by his pet theory. Imagine the odds!

I'm with J. This is a joke.

When did Steven Shifflett/Gas Bag become the biggest source for The Hook's "stories" - in addition to the most prolific poster on the site?

Totally bizarre.

I'm with GBSOE totally on this. The radiant heat from a normally operating catalytic converter with the engine not running would be most unlikely to ignite gasoline spilling under the car. Under extraordinary conditions with a malfunctioning fuel system, a converter might become incandescent while the car was running and might ignite things like dry grass coming into contact with the converter, but for the most part gasoline won't ignite except when there's an open flame or a spark. Those who doubt can perform an experiment for themselves; it's very simple. Heat the blade of a clean screwdriver to a dull red glow, then remove the flame and wave the hot screwdriver over a small puddle of gasoline. You will see.
Static electricity is another matter however.This is the reason why they tell you to place any gas cans on the ground before filling them, and standard advice has always been to remain outside the vehicle while fueling so you don't pick up a static charge from sliding across the seats. And again, if not keeping your hand on the nozzle at all times while fueling, be sure to touch some other part of the car before putting your hand back on the nozzle. Self service fueling is illegal in some states due to concerns about this type of thing.
As for statements from firemen, always remember they are specialists in putting out fires, not in the science of how fires start and there are many simplistic memes out there in fireman world. I would cite a long article appearing in the New Yorker last year about the "junk science" pervasive in the world of arson investigation as used to provide testimony in court about whether a fire was set.

Ok then. If you naysayers don't think static can ignite a fire...go ahead and push your luck. Any NASA scientist will tell you it can MOST certainly cause a fire.

Have you ever been shocked getting out of your car in the cooler months when you went to close the door. WELL DUH!!!! Of course you have and what may I ask, keeps you from getting shocked??? Touching the metal outside of your door AS you exit from the car. That DOES difuse the electric shock, which of course is caused by static.

How can you be so ignorant to thing this can't happen?!

Correct, Sophia. People are just too busy to pay attention to what they are doing nowadays. This is exactly why it's a crime to fuel your own car in some states. A gas station attendant is the only person who can fuel your car in certain.

BB, if you missed the most important "real information" in this story, I will be glad to repeat it for you. In cold weather, always touch metal and ground yourself before reaching for the gas nozzle again once your tank is full. Especially if you weren't paying attention and you have now let fuel spill out of the tank onto the side of the car and onto the ground. Grounding yourself is extremely important if you get in and out of your car while waiting for the vehicle to fuel. Otherwwise, electrostatic sparks are much more likely to occur. It's common sense to realize that accidents of this type occur, but perhaps we should wonder why the actual occurrence rate is quite low.

If this story prevents just one serious injury or fatality, The Hook has performed a very important community service. When's the last time you have seen a fire department or fire marshall educate the public about the dangers involved in fueling cars? Is it not that important because only a few hundred of these accidents take place nationwide each year?

Conjecture; there is hardly any real information in this article just a desire to write a story and hearsay.

I have to agree with Yes. This article is embarrassingly speculative, and its presence cheapens some of the fine journalism The Hook has produced in the past.

While their is no doubt that static electricity is theoretically capable of starting a gas pump fire, I'm going to side with the fire marshal on this one. The simpler, more logical explanation from someone who actually investigated the fire? must be a conspiracy!

I must point out Gasbag that you didn't blow up, and two of the three car fires mentioned in the article weren't anywhere near a gas station.

Mr/Mrs/Miss Yes, if I was a fire marshall, I would never issue a press release or make a statement to the effect that a city or county employee was improperly fueling a vehicle when a serious fire took place.

Isn't the real question why county employees are getting a four-day weekend because of the anachronistic Lee-Jackson day?

Mr/Mrs/Miss, there were many occasions in my career when I couldn't tell the public the truth after a department head or city official had put a spin on a press release. If you like your job in a city, county, state or federal agency, you are encouraged to never tell the truth if it is detrimental to the agency. The most memorable to me at this moment was when a fellow deputy went to lunch and forget he had a prisoner in his vehicle on a very hot summer day. He went in his house, had lunch and returned to the vehicle about 45 minutes later. The prisoner was by now having a heat related anxiety attack! The deputy told the truth to the sheriff in house, but a spin was put on the press release by the sheriff stating that the deputy had an emergency and had to stop at his house to use the bathroom for a few minutes. I still have "the truth" (memo to the sheriff signed by the deputy), and the false press release in my files to this day. If the deputy had then, after the sheriff's press release, decided to tell the public the truth and apologized for actions, he would have been FIRED most likely!

Yes, there's no danger of ever working for me. I would not be a very department head in any city, county or state agency. The very first thing I would do is get rid of all the deadwood. The last agency I worked for had 5 people doing all the work, and 5 sitting around drinking coffee and chatting all day long. Well, except the 2 hours they took for lunch, and the hour they left early every day! :)

For a long time now I've consistently defended the Hook as a fine journalistic product. I can no longer do that after reading this article. This is laughable. "The fire marshall can say anything he wants, but in my (totally uncredentialed) opinion...."

What a joke.

Pumping gas at any station is quite scarey today, especially when you observe other people talking on their CELL PHONES, TEXTING, LEAVING THE CAR RUNNING, GOING IN AND OUT OF THE CAR and SMOKING!!!!! All of this while the car is being refueled. A lot of people do not pay attention to the signs stating the specific dangers because of these selfish actions on their part. But why should we expect anything different at a gas station, when most of these actions are being done while they are driving. May be the gas stations should have an outdoor monitor to not only enforce the safety regulations, but also to ensure the safety of others.

If the Hook is going to publish whole posts devoted to unsubstantiated conjecture and preconceived personal pet theories, then that Subliminal Distraction dude should demand equal treatment.

Relax, TV, everyone knows that this CAN happen. But why shouldn't we have greater confidence in this particular case in the explanation offered by eyewitnesses and the conclusion reached by the fire marshall who investigated the matter, as opposed to the opinion offered by Gasbag even before any details of the incident were known?

What's you point gbag? You say "if I was a fire marshall, I would never issue a press release or make a statement to the effect that a city or county employee was improperly fueling a vehicle when a serious fire took place", and then you turn around and say " If city and county officials would take the time to talk to people, we wouldn’t need highly overpaid press spokespersons in the city or county."

Pick a side there pal, and stick with it.

Businessman, when the fire marshall refuses to talk to The Hook, it raises my suspicions about how this fire took place even more. But even so, I accept the fire marshall's explanation. His explanation makes it clearly obvious that the vehicle was being fueled improperly if the automatic cutoff malfunctioned and enough gas made it to the front of the vehicle to ignite a fire. :)

This actually presents another issue as well. If city and county officials would take the time to talk to people, we wouldn't need highly overpaid press spokespersons in the city or county.

GassyB - wait, if you were fire marshall, then you wouldn't publicly state what had actually occurred? I'd hate to work in your Ye Olde Fire Marshalle Shoppe.

Angel Eyes, another way to test the fire marshal's theory is to park your car on flat concrete. Take a garden hose and let it run this summer. See how much water has to run before it reaches the front of the car. This will prove that even if the fire marshal is right, it certainly proves inattention or a lack of responsibility by the driver while having fueled the car. Even this inattention isn't a big deal. Except for the fact she had two students lives in her hands. (I have now learned the driver was a SHE).

Before you know it we are all going to have to wear ground straps and fire suites while refueling our cars.

The vapor ignites, not the liquid. When it hits the ground the heat from underneath the car attracts the vapors.

Here is a you tube video that shows how it evaporates quickly.

What would Charlie Morecraft do?

Yes? no name given --

Since my last post here there have been developments world wide with Subliminal Distraction. Visit my site and hit the links at the top of the HOME page.

Businessman, I am sorry I plucked your last nerve today. I really am.

But, whenever I see a person get in and out of their car while fueling a vehicle, it is usually a SHE. Just like the SHE in one of the the video links in this thread. If saying this is sexist, I enter a plea of guilty.

And just in case you really are having trouble keeping up here and don't understand why I said I would make a pretty bad department head, Mr/Mrs/Miss Yes said they sure would hate to work in my Ye Olde Fire Marshalle Shoppe. I guess some people really don't read all the replies posted here after all. They pick and choose their target. :)

Ah yes, of course. Actors!

I'm thinking adolescent vampires, and dinosaurs.

Will this debate be on pay-per-view? Sounds really exciting. It could feature a semi-embalmed journalist as moderator. Maybe a chair-throwing moment will jazz-up the peanut gallery.

Jeff, because of Monday being a holiday, this debate will get much more interesting on Tuesday. Ths is when some of the actors will be back to work and can use their employers computers and time to play along. :)

@ Lisa I'll tell you what's bizarre. Drunken birds falling from the sky in Romania is bizarre. Gasbag is dead on correct in this debate. Just take the time to ground yourself and happy motoring. and don't forget to look both ways even on a green light.

"Yes, there’s no danger of ever working for me. I would not be a very department head in any city, county or state agency. The very first thing I would do is get rid of all the deadwood."

Gbag, what fantasy world do you live in? How does that thought squirt out of your head and into this discussion? You sound slightly unhinged.

Nice touch throwing in that "the driver was a SHE[sic])." Now we know you're sexist on top of everything else. At least SHE probably knows a pronoun's proper usage.

I think its all a conspiracy.


You're in the Gasblog.

My point is to anyone out there who doesn't think static can cause a fire at the gas pumps. It is not a speculation on all of the causes of the recent fires. I wasn't remarking on the two non-gas pump related Car-B-Q's. I was relating to people who don't believe static can cause these types of incidents.

Looks as though this story has burned itself out.

Not really. A lot of people who participate here do so on their employer's computer and dime. They will be back to work on Tuesday. :)

"This article is embarrassingly speculative, and its presence cheapens some of the fine journalism The Hook has produced in the past."
HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! What fine jounalism?