How your car’s catalytic converter could spark a wildfire

Posted at 5:02 PM, Jun 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-15 20:02:17-04

Investigators say the Creston Fire that ignited Thursday afternoon just south of Paso Robles was sparked by a car’s catalytic converter.

The devices heat up quickly and can be very dangerous.

"Underneath the vehicle, we have the exhaust system that kind of goes underneath the vehicle along the way. This right here is actually the catalyst converter," pointed out Randy Tate of Rizzoli’s Automotive.

A catalytic converter helps a car run cleaner.

"This burns all the polluted emissions through the system out of the tailpipe so it reduces it and when it comes out of the tailpipe, it’s less harmful to the human body," Tate said.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work but if your catalytic converter isn’t working correctly, it can really heat up.

That’s when the trouble starts for the honeycomb-looking piece inside of it.

"When a cat’s really bad, it starts deteriorating, breaking apart. The honeycomb will actually break off inside the cat and come out of the exhaust system and shoot out of the muffler," Tate continued.

Fire investigators say that’s what happened Thursday. Sixty acres were charred.

"This is a piece of exhaust carbon from a vehicle that passed through the area here that actually ignited this fire," explained Chris Elms, CAL FIRE SLO Public Information Officer.

Hot catalytic converter pieces can fall from a car any time of year but right now the prime fire conditions can make the bad situation, even worse.

"These catalyst converters can go in a matter of minutes from 1,200 up to 1,600 degrees," Tate explained.

"It’s hot enough, it’s almost like holding a match right to the grass," Elms added.

So, how do you know if your catalytic converter has a problem?

"You have an emissions check engine light, emissions control light that comes on the dash so it’s very important to pay attention to that," Tate said.

In other cars, you might even hear rattling or what sounds like rocks underneath it.

"It can actually get plugged and if a cat is plugged, it’s going to reduce performance and power on a vehicle," Tate concluded.

Fire investigators are often able to tell it’s a catalytic converter fire because there will be multiple fires along the same road.

CAL FIRE adds that if your car causes a fire and it’s tracked back to you, you can be held responsible for the bill.

Auto experts say the life of a catalytic converter is five to ten years.