How to tell if a car fire is arson? 6 signs to identify

By Arif

Car destroyed in arson

Arson is one of the most common causes of car fires. But, how to tell if a car fire is arson?

Arson can be performed by damaging public property including automobiles that are a soft target and easily visible.

It is a criminal act carried by individuals/groups during public processions, rioting, violence, etc., and also due to personal agony or jealousy.

Such people/groups do follow a certain process to execute their plans and this is what we will find out in this post.

How to tell if a car fire is arson

There are primarily 6 signs that prove if a car fire is an arson. The most common signs are burning patterns and the use of accelerants.

If a burned vehicle showcases a particular pattern from where the fire originated and if the location of the fire consists of accelerants, then it could be arson.

Similarly, the location and condition of the burned vehicle, missing accessories, circumstances, and the condition of the ignition switch, key, and lock also play a major role in detecting arson.

Signs to spot and detect arson

Detecting Arson is best left to the investigating team as they are fully trained to handle such cases. These people work on some signs and evidences that help them identify if the car fire was caused by Arson.

Assuming your car is damaged by fire but not charred completely there is a possibility of recovering the events that happened before the fire. The first sign is –

The location of the vehicle found

According to the US Washington department, if a vehicle is found in a deserted area some kilometers away from its original location this is the first sign of arson.

Someone (neighbor/rival) who doesn’t like you as a person, can take revenge on your car by sparking it to flames somewhere far.

Though a possibility of a car owner taking the car to a long distance and then setting it on fire cannot be ruled out the location is always taken into consideration while investigating the matter further.

There are instances where people try to get insurance claims by burning the car themselves and disguising the insurance authorities creating an arson situation.

Reporting Circumstances

A location is also a determining factor to investigate the circumstances under which arson was reported.

For example, reporting an arson at odd hours from the incident location. If the car is found far away from the actual location with suspicious skid marks, or stolen objects an arson investigation can be initiated.

Missing headlight from a car

Some of the other signs include forced entry into the car (if the key is still with the owner), missing or tampered car components, etc.

The political stability of a country, frequent protests, public unrest, and repeated patterns are also taken into consideration in the circumstances list.

Condition of the vehicle

The condition of the vehicle is important to scrutinize and gather evidence. Arsonists tend to tamper with car parts that are vulnerable to fire.

Fuel tanks, batteries, electrical supplies, etc. are targeted to make the fire look technical.

As an example, fire spreading due to fuel leakage is a technical malfunction however, on a closer look if there are signs of tool marks that means the tank has been tampered with to create fire.

You can also look for any physical damage done to your vehicle. Damages like dents on the doors, broken glasses, etc. which obviously won’t take place if the car caught fire on its own.

The damage inspection is only possible if the car remains in an investigating condition.

Burning patterns

Taking the example of accelerants, not all car parts are equally affected by the burning substance. This reduces the extent of fire to moderate levels.

Such scenarios are helpful in determining the origination of fire by examining the intensity and burning patterns from unaffected areas.

Fuel leakage, battery failure, electrical short circuits, and accidents are the major causes of fire other than arson.

Any of these causes create a burning pattern. For example, an electrical malfunction arising due to overheating of the engine will start the spark from one point of origin i.e the engine bay itself.

This part is responsible to spread the fire to the other parts of the vehicle.

If this pattern of fire is breached or if there are multiple origins of fire found, the chances of arson cannot be neglected. 

The intensity of fire to the extent where nothing is possible to retrieve is usually left with the ‘cause undetermined’ status.

In some cases, they do lead to suspicion of defrauding the insurance companies by the car owners. Still, such instances remain inconclusive.

Missing accessories

Robbery and theft cannot be avoided in arson cases.

Burglars tend to remove premium accessories and some important parts from the car and then set it on fire to cover up their act.

Along similar lines, car owners can also remove the accessories before setting the vehicle ablaze. In order to avoid the payment on repairs, some car owners file first information reports of missing cars and then put them on fire to collect the money through insurance.

Missing components, and accessories from the burned car are signs that arson was performed for a stealing cause or defrauding the insurance company.

Presence of gasoline/accelerants

Miscreants do use accelerants to ignite the fire. This is the most common factor in all types of Arson cases.

The presence of gasoline is not conclusive evidence since the liquid is part of many cars.

However, depending on the parts where it is found, the extent of fire to the passenger compartment and the intensity of burns on the carpet and combustible areas form the crux of arson investigation.

Other accelerants like kerosene are definitely a source of the deliberate fire. It generates a unique smell due to the chemical used which is a hint of foul play.

For example, the extent to which windows are melted in the burned car. A typical car fire generates heat enough to melt the windows subsequently.

A fire created using accelerants is more powerful and intense to melt the windows.

There are many instances of car fires where some of the spots remained untouched by fire and these parts became the source of further investigation and in some cases proved the involvement of arson.

Final thoughts

Arson has been in existence for decades. Some European countries such as Sweden, France, and the UK have recorded trending patterns through which Arson is performed.

Arsonists have several reasons and eve to destroy public vehicles. Due to easy availability and open circumstances, cars are most vulnerable to arson.

Properly maintained cars have rare chances of catching fire on their own. If you still find your car burning outside your house or far away then it could be arson. Your first step should be to douse the fire immediately and keep the extent as low as possible.

Next, look for the signs and symptoms discussed in this post. I am sure you will be able to find traces of deliberate fire. If not, then hand over the proceedings to Arson investigating professionals.

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I am the founder of TheCarPlus. As a passionate car owner and enthusiast, I offer practical solutions and insights from my own personal experiences combined with extensive online research.

The purpose of creating this website is to empower fellow car owners and motorcyclists like 'YOU' with knowledge and practical solutions to enhance your vehicle's performance and aesthetics.

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