Editor’s Note: This story was last updated at 10:29 p.m. on Aug. 17. For the latest update on the Parleys Canyon Fire, click here.
A broken catalytic converter started the Parleys Canyon Fire, but that’s far from the only wildfire that was started by a vehicle. Cars and trucks ignited 122 fires in Utah this year alone.
Some fairly common maintenance may keep your car from becoming the next firestarter.
Tires bursting, heat or particles from exhaust systems, failing brakes and engine failures can all emit sparks or provide the heat necessary to set roadside brush on fire, Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands prevention specialist Kayli Yardley said in a statement. Objects dragging behind vehicles, such as trailer chains, can also send sparks off the road and into the grass, where they can start a fire.
In the Parleys Canyon Fire, a fire investigator found pieces of a catalytic converter on the roadside, which would have provided the spark to start the blaze.
The Utah Highway Patrol is searching for the vehicle that caused the fire using witnesses’ descriptions of the vehicle, Yardley said.
The fires caused by vehicles this year have burned more than 2,500 acres, Yardley said.
There are multiple reasons a vehicle’s catalytic converter could break down, said Chad Everill, owner of Master Muffler in Kearns. Catalytic converters change toxic gases and pollutants in vehicle exhausts into less-toxic pollutants, but the part can be very fragile.
The pieces inside the part can melt down if an engine is not maintained properly, or they can shatter if hit by debris on the road, the exhaust system’s hangers break or even if the vehicle is driven through cold water, Everill said.
So the car that caused the fire may not be maintained well, Everill said, but it could also be a newer vehicle that hit some potholes. Many mufflers would be able to catch the pieces of a broken catalytic converter, but some truck exhaust systems would let the pieces straight out the tailpipe, according to Everill.
To avoid letting a vehicle be the cause of a wildfire, Everill suggests keeping up with proper repairs and maintenance — including following the maintenance schedule recommended by the manufacturer. Good quality parts installed by someone with experience are also important to keeping a car functioning properly, he said.
If the “check engine” light turns on, make time to see a mechanic, Everill said. If the light starts flashing, don’t drive the car and call a tow truck because that light signifies a “catastrophic failure” in the vehicle.
Everill also thinks Utah should reinstate the mandatory safety inspections the state repealed three years ago.
“The general public is not taking good care of their vehicles,” Everill said. “It’s driving the cost of car repairs up.”
Everill has worked as a mechanic for 25 years, and his family owns Master Muffler. Since the repeal of mandatory inspections, repairs have been more expensive because drivers don’t come in for service or maintenance until a car breaks down. With the inspections, drivers would have less costly preventative maintenance.
“I think the state should step in,” Everill said.
A bill to reinstate some safety testing failed to pass the Senate during this year’s session.
Even with mandatory inspections, Everill can’t say for sure that an inspection would catch every instance of a broken down catalytic converter.
Without regular inspections, it’s up to drivers to spot maintenance issues on their cars so they don’t start fires.
“It is very important for the public to properly maintain and care for their vehicles/trailers to help lessen human-caused fire starts along the roadways,” said Yardley.
Correction: August 17, 9:47 a.m. This article was updated to clarify the purpose of failed Senate bill for automotive safety testing from this year.