By Debbie Murphy/autoMedia.com
The first response to a suspected vehicle fire is to pull over, immediately. Fire feeds off oxygen and even slow forward motion will force air into the engine compartment, basically stoking the fire. Exploding cars are generally the stuff of crime dramas, but it's still best to stop in an area away from buildings and people, if you have that option. Burning plastics and other materials can produce toxic gases—maybe not as visually exciting as an explosion, but best not to expose yourself or bystanders.
Next, get yourself and passengers out of the car. However, the following recommendations about trying to put out the fire may seem contradictory, and what you do is dependent on the availability of a fire extinguisher, your ability to use it and your knowledge of auto mechanics.
From personal experience, the two times smoke billowed around my engine compartment, I was fairly sure there was no corresponding fire. One was a broken fan belt, the major clues being a voltage gauge that had flat-lined and a temperature gauge that headed toward the danger zone. The other was a little bit of smoke accompanied by a scary reading on the oil gauge (a gas station attendant hadn't replaced the oil reservoir cap after topping it off). I didn't call 911; I called for a tow. If you're not sure what's going on, call 911. Better safe and embarrassed than very, very sorry.
Some sources discourage trying to put the fire out on your own. One thing is certain: An emergency is not the time to start reading the instructions on your fire extinguisher. Everyone should have a fire extinguisher easily accessible in the passenger compartment, and one rated ABC for all types of fires is the best.
If the fire is relatively small and in the interior, use your extinguisher. (Closing the doors and windows may also smother the fire.) If there's a small amount of smoke coming from under the hood, pop the release but don't lift the hood. Quickly spray through the gap, from several feet away, aiming at the base of the fire rather than the flames. The logic is based on the fact that fire feeds off oxygen and lifting the hood can turn a little fire into a large one, instantly. If the fire is large or located in the rear of the vehicle, near the gas tank, your chances of safely extinguishing it are small.
While explosions from car fires are rare, the true danger is the toxic fumes. Another consideration is a vehicle equipped with gas shock absorbers or gas struts. Under intense heat both can explode and turn into lethal projectiles.
That's a lot to remember, so if you forget everything else, as smoke is billowing out of your car, just remember to pull over, turn off the ignition, get everyone out of the vehicle and call for help.