Dozers built fireline through 3,500 burning rental cars

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The catastrophe may have been an indirect effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 7,300 unused rental cars were stored in a grassy field.

rental cars burn fire Fort Myers Airport
Behind the firefighter is a pile of cars made as heavy equipment built a fireline to stop the spreading fire. More than 3,500 rental cars burn at Southwest Florida International Airport at Fort Myers, Florida April 3, 2020. Fort Myers Fire Department photo.

As thousands of rental cars were burning on April 3 in a temporary overflow parking area at the Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) near Fort Myers, Florida the firefighters were faced with an unprecedented scenario. Should they use dozers to build a fireline through the 7,366 parked cars to create a barrier to stop the fire?

(We first wrote about the 3,516 burned cars on April 4, 2020)

The call came in at about 4:40 p.m. Burning like a wildfire, the blaze was rapidly spreading through a grassy field, a temporary parking area for the rental cars. When the wind pushed the fire through the vehicles parked bumper to bumper in long rows, hundreds of burning cars became thousands. Dark black smoke rose in a convection column that leaned over, pushed over by the wind. A small pyrocumulus cloud formed at the top of the column, a phenomenon usually only seen on very intensely burning wildfires.

rental cars burn fire Fort Myers Airport
A small pyrocumulus cloud forms over the convection column of smoke as over 3,500 rental cars burned at Southwest Florida International Airport at Fort Myers, Florida. Photo by Sean Tully, April 3, 2020.

“The cars were stored in a location not ordinarily used for any specific purpose”, said Victoria B. Moreland, Director of Communications and Marketing for the airport. “The large number was due to the car rental agencies serving RSW not renting inventory during the peak season due to the current COVID-19 crisis.”

map rental cars burn fire Fort Myers Airport
The arrow points to the location where 3,516 rental cars burned April 3, 2020 at Southwest Florida International Airport at Fort Myers, Florida. Google Earth/Wildfire Today.

The cars were parked across the road from a gas station in a grassy field southeast of Terminal Access Road which leads to the airport. From photos, it appeared that the grass had at one time been mowed, but not low to the ground like a lawn, it was several inches high. The grass was mostly dead but was just beginning its spring green-up. The grass allowed the fire to spread easily from car to car, but since they were parked so closely together, the fuel (the cars) was continuous in most areas allowing the fire to spread by radiant and convective heat car-to-car.

rental cars burn fire Fort Myers Airport
More than 3,500 rental cars burn at Southwest Florida International Airport at Fort Myers, Florida April 3, 2020. Fort Myers Fire Department photo.

Firefighters and equipment from at least 11 fire departments arrived to help suppress the fire. Four dozers from the Florida Forest Service worked on the side of the fire that burned into trees and heavier vegetation, building a fireline — scraping the ground bare so that the fire could not spread any further. Helicopters dropped water on the burning cars. The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office reported that one of their Huey helicopters flown by Chief Pilot Shane Engelauf made over 80 water drops on the fire.

helicopter rental cars burn fire Fort Myers Airport
A helicopter drops water as more than 3,500 rental cars burn at Southwest Florida International Airport at Fort Myers, Florida April 3, 2020. Fort Myers Fire Department photo.

After I saw two photos taken at the scene showing piles of cars two or three layers deep and stacked at random angles, I began making inquiries to ask if dozers had been used to build a fireline through the parked cars in an attempt to separate the burning cars from the unburned cars, possibly sacrificing some undamaged cars in the process as they worked the big machines near the advancing flames.

A similar tactic was used at an automobile wrecking yard April 1 in Kern County, California when an intense fire was burning through piles of crushed cars. (see photo below)

Mojave Incident 4-1-2020 Kern Co FD
A dozer builds a fireline through crushed cars as a fire burns in a wrecking yard in Kern County, California April 1, 2020. Kern County FD photo.

Tracy W. Young, Chief of Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting at the airport told us that heavy equipment was in fact used to stop the spread of the fire.

“Tomahawk Construction and Port Authority provided heavy equipment (front end loaders) which were used to push cars and create a fire break,” Chief Young told us. “Because the fire was so large, the strategy was to create a fire line flanking the fire and in front of the fire’s head to prevent further spread. Fire Crash apparatus [trucks] and numerous other fire apparatus were used to protect the heavy equipment as they moved cars. ”

rental cars burn fire Fort Myers Airport
A pile of cars made as heavy equipment built a fireline to stop the spreading fire. More than 3,500 rental cars burned at Southwest Florida International Airport at Fort Myers, Florida April 3, 2020. Andres West / News-Press photo.

The tactic to use dozers or heavy equipment was successful, saving more than half of the cars. The firefighters worked on the fire into the night and it was out the next day.

“This fire was particularly unique as it was found in ample open space, close to thick brush,” said Fort Myers Beach Fire Department Executive Assistant Chief Ron Martin. “This open space and wind conditions served to fuel the fire, and crews (needed) to contend with a wildland fire and several thousand cars that were on fire.”

The final tally:

  • 3,516 cars were damaged or destroyed;
  • 3,850 were saved.

This fire, or at least the scope it it, may have been an indirect effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. With tourism and air travel brought to a near standstill the rental car agencies at the Southwest Florida International Airport suddenly found themselves with over 7,300 cars that could not be parked in their paved parking lots near the terminal. Placing them bumper-to-bumper over dead grass created an environment that made a fire, once started, difficult to access and suppress as it spread in the grass and moved from car to car.

rental cars burn fire Fort Myers Airport
More than 3,500 rental cars burn at Southwest Florida International Airport at Fort Myers, Florida April 3, 2020. Fort Myers Fire Department photo.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

8 thoughts on “Dozers built fireline through 3,500 burning rental cars”

    1. The pandemic created a condition in which 7,366 cars suddenly were not actively being rented and they had to be parked somewhere. It is an indirect effect, as said in the piece. A lesson in second-order thinking. If there had not been a pandemic, this most likely would not have happened. Those cars would have been out on the road in south Florida.

      1. But they could have plowed the field first – it’s still cars parked on a grassy field – didn’t have to be regardless of original reason

  1. Well looks like a risk analysis was not done. Sometimes when dealing with sudden overwhelming problems people get tunnel vision and fail to look at the whole picture. I’m sure that the insurance carrier for the companies are not happy. Dealing with vehicle fires can be very dangerous. To mention a few dangers, extremely toxic smoke, exploding components, very high temperatures, high rates of spread. This is not the first time vehicles have ignited grass, what is spectacular is the total number lost in the fire. Back in the mid-70s a NPS area lost a couple of 4X4 patrol units due to this very issue.

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