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Can Your Car Catch Fire As You Try to Get it Unstuck From the Snow?

By Mina Bloom | February 5, 2015 8:48am
 The aftermath of a car fire in Lakeview. Nearby resident Andrew Peron said he'd never seen anyone rock back and forth so aggressively before.
The aftermath of a car fire in Lakeview. Nearby resident Andrew Peron said he'd never seen anyone rock back and forth so aggressively before.
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Courtesy/Andrew Peron

UPTOWN — Despite videos circulating that show cars spontaneously igniting in unplowed streets and alleys, local auto experts say there's a very slim chance your car will burst into flames while you try to free it from the snow.

"It would have to be a perfect storm," said Joe Betancourt, Jr., general manager of Joe's Expert Auto Service at 2740 N. Elston Ave. 

The car would not only have to be leaking flammable fluid, but the gas line, located underneath the car, would also have to be ruptured. Combine that with repeated revving of the engine and then there's a chance — albeit very small — that the car would ignite, local auto experts told DNAinfo Chicago.

"Sounds like a Michael Bay movie," said Pat Rooney, manager at Ashland Tire and Auto, 3737 N. Ashland Ave. "That doesn't really happen in real life. It could happen, but I've never, ever seen it."

During Sunday's historic blizzard, several Chicagoans captured and shared videos of cars igniting. The videographers said they burst into flames after the drivers tried to get them out of snow-packed parking spots.

Lakeview resident Andrew Peron noticed a driver who was trying to gain momentum by aggressively rocking his car back and forth to the point where his tires started smoking — something car experts agreed could happen.

"He was smacking his car up against the snow embankment," said Peron, who witnessed the incident in the 3200 block of North Seminary Avenue late Sunday evening. "I've never seen anybody do that so aggressively."

Next, Peron heard the car's tires pop, and then "watched in disbelief" as a fire erupted from its hood, he said. He captured the scene on video from his nearby apartment window.

Betancourt said a car would likely have to hit something going 20 or 30 mph to rupture the gas line.

"It would have to be a hit where there's severe damage," he added.

In West Woodlawn, Carrie Piatkowski witnessed a car fire Sunday evening at 60th Street and Lawrence Avenue while at her boyfriend's apartment.

Piatkowski said the driver had been trying to get the car out of the snow for "a good hour" before it erupted in flames, which shot up at least four stories high a few times. She, too, captured the scene on video.

One thing auto experts and the witnesses can agree on: there are better ways to free a car from snow than aggressively rocking back and forth for an hour.

According to Tom Baker, owner of Lawrence Ashland Auto Service, 4757 N. Ashland Ave., the best way to get out of a snowy spot is to first remove as much snow as possible from underneath the front tires and then put cat litter underneath them for traction.

Sand or salt can also be used, but he said since cat litter is sold everywhere, he always recommends it.

If all else fails, he suggests calling a tow truck before further damaging the car. 

For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: