More Disturbing (Mysterious) Car Fires

“Dear PoP,

On Sunday, September 26 my new 2010 Mini Cooper burst into flames at around 4:30 a.m.

I parked the car just down the block from my home at 9:30 pm on Saturday night. I parked it at 16th and Oak directly in front of 1523 Oak Street NW. When I passed by the car on Sunday around 1pm we found that the entire front of the car was destroyed (photo attached.) I spoke to the residents of 1523 and they told me that the noise and flames had woken them up around 4:30 a.m. at which point they called 911 and started throwing buckets of water on the car to try and stop the fire. The fire department and police came, put out the fire, and left.

Officer Richardson answered our call on Sunday afternoon, when my partner and I first discovered the damage to the car, and tried to help us track down a report number. At first, fire dispatch said there was no record of an incident at that time and location. Several phone calls later, she was able to talk to Investigator Ford at the Fire Investigation Unit who told her that a call was made at 4:47 am and Engine 11 (located at 14th and Newton) responded to the call and put out the fire. Investigator Ford said that he was at the scene at that time and called the fire mechanical, not arson. When pressed, he said that the fire on the 3600 block of 16th Street on August 25th which involved several vehicles was also mechanical.

I cannot accept that the cause of our car being incinerated was “mechanical”. Our car is barely 3 weeks old and had been turned off and parked for roughly 6 hours prior to catching on fire. As I waited for an officer to respond to my call on Sunday afternoon, several community members mentioned cars being set on fire on neighboring streets, Otis, Kenyon, and Monroe in the past few weeks. One neighbor stopped and showed me a picture of his car which burned while parked on Otis Street this past Thursday and was also deemed “mechanical” (2nd attachment below.) The damage to his car looked exactly like ours and also happened around 4 am. It is ridiculous that none of these incidents are being properly investigated.

The damage to our car is already done, but I am afraid that since the Fire Investigation Unit is not finding any of these fires suspicious, vehicles in the Columbia Heights area will continue to burn until one of them explodes and the fire spread to someone’s home or a passerby is injured or worse.

Firefighters returned to our car this morning because someone called to say that gas was leaking down the street. When we spoke with them they said that all the cars that have been burned have Maryland or Virginia tags. We’re DC residents but bought our car in Maryland so it had MD temp tags.”

I also got the following brief note from a reader on Friday:

“Saw this Jeep burned out between 14th and 16th on Monroe.”

52 Comment

  • Ugh. This is reminiscent of the similar fires on 16th street a couple weeks back, on which PoP posted. Sounds like a serial arsonist may be on the loose.

  • Saw one on the Unit block of O or Hanover Place NW near Big Ben Liquor about a month back.

    I hope the fire dept starts taking this more seriously. How often do cars go up in flames that several within a few weeks in a similar area dont raise red flags?

    • Welcome to DC.

      • I got my official welcome to DC at GW Hospital’s labor and delivery… but thanks for the sarcasm.

        Let me rephrase my last comment so I’m not accused of being a recent transplant by someone who is a less recent transplant. Burned out cars are NOT normal in any part of DC and they never have been. This is something rare and warrants an investigation.

        • I was more commenting on crimes not being investigated, which is a hallmark of DC in my experience. Burglaries and assaults for example generally mean a statement is taken and thats it. I’m shocked whenever I read of crimes in other cities and burglars are arrested from a fingerprint. This is unfathomable in DC. In my 3 burglaries no fingerprints were even taken, and one police report misspelled ‘burglary’ as ‘buglary’ several times in the write up.

          Anyways, I have no opinion on how long you’ve been here or stuff like that. I’ve been here 20 years and hopefully a month away from escaping to elsewhere, so there you are. I always laugh at the idea that “outsiders” are unwelcome in the capital of the US which is now the capital of the free world (for a while at least). Imagine the wealth the city residents have lost by maintaining a message of ‘not welcome’. Jackasses, thank god they suffer the consequences or I wouldn’t believe in cosmic justice.

          How’s that for a ramble? I hate Mondays…

          • I almost regretted what I said when I read your first paragraph. Then I read your second and I realized my instinct was right on.


  • If the Fire Inspector says the cause was mechanical, is that the end of it? Seems to me that the insurance company or car dealership would be VERY interested in determining the cause of the the fire – especially since it determines who is liable for damages.

    Only problem for you, is if it turns out to be arson, then it might fall under the comrehensive coverage clause you may have declined…

    • I hope they wouldn’t have for a brand new car. One usually dose that after 4 – 8 years after the car is worth much less, and you aren’t as concerned about damage.

  • I know that a couple of people who lost their cars to fire are gay ( 16th and Spring, 16th and Monroe). I wonder if the arsonist is targeting gay people?

    • maybe targeting hipsters..?

      it is disturbing though.. perhaps cars would be save if they were chrysler 300s

    • You could be on to something. Many gay people (myself included) have a HRC sticker or some other identifying information on their car. Though I wouldn’t have expected some arsonist homophobic thugs to be familiar with the HRC symbol.

      • On that note, if you do suspect it’s a hate crime you might try contacting the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit. Generally I think the police are useless (or worse) in these situations, but I’ve had a great experience with the GLLU.

      • Back in 1995 this happened to me in front of my parent’s house in Va Beach. Not arson, but smashed window and slashed tires. At the time I removed my gay identity stickers to avoid future attacks. But this was after also being assaulted several times also. Gotta love living in the bible belt!

        • You’re the first person I’ve heard categorize VA Beach as within the bible belt. Not that I disagree– in fact, I would place most of Northern VA in that category while we’re at it.

    • Half of DC is gay.

      • More than half in this neighborhood. So I guess the chance of an arsonist randomly getting a lot of gay cars is pretty high.

  • Mechanical? Please. Apparently, the investigators think that cars in this neighborhood are like Spinal Tap drummers: prone to spontaneous combustion.

  • this is where laziness sets in. Its easier to call it mechanical that to do any investigation.

    • Honestly, I think it has more to do with wanting to downplay the crime– police to it all the time to artificially lower the crime stats and make them look better. The horrible downside is that it makes it harder for them to spot trends that could indicate a serial arsonist or rapist is on the loose.

  • The car burned on Monroe St. (in front of 1521 Monroe)had DC tags. It was also clearly arson as the engine compartment was more or less unaffected by the fire.

  • Ok, first, I completely agree that this many 4am car fires in a very small radius is very suspicious and I am surprised that MPD/fire department aren’t paying more attention.

    However, there are multiple reports of spontaneous engine fires in Mini Coopers. So there is, in fact, a slim chance that yours wasn’t arson, though the reports I’m seeing reference older (MY2004-08) cars.

    • All the more reason for the fire inspector to investigate, in my opinion.

    • Also, to the OP – did you post this to the NHTSA safety complaint database? There’s one complaint from 9/27/10 in there for a MY2010 Mini Cooper stating that it caught fire approximately 7 hours after being parked and that the fire department said it was mechanical. If that’s not you, it’s an eerily similar report.

    • Plus, the newness of the car makes me think it could have been a lemon.

    • As a fellow mini cooper ownerm my heart goes out to the owner of this car. 🙁

      The picture of what looks like what once was a really nice red Mini Cooper saddens me and the fact that the car was so new is especially troubling.

      All the best, but I agree, get your insurance involved. They have the most at stake here.

  • This is why we can’t have nice things.

  • Spontaineous carbustion. Sounds like the DC Fire Inspector does not want a case load to me. Just another example of lazy district employees. Push your case hard to all levels. Go to your councilman and mayor. This is clearly arson and the response is just bullshit.

    • Hire a private arson investigator. Someone has to do this for a fee. If it’s a brand new car, it’ll be worth the money.

    • spontaneous combustion does happen though… my next door neighbors were on vacation when their relatively new ford explorer caught fire in their driveway and burned to a crisp. It hadn’t been used for several days. Lets get more info before we start calling this a hate crime… jeez.

  • The Jeep on Monroe St (right in front of my house) could not have been a mechanical fire. The passenger compartment was destroyed but the engine was the only part virtually unscathed.

    Also, this vehicle belonged to my neighbor and had DC tags. Not Maryland or Virginia.

  • To the poster: Why don’t you try contacting the TV media on this- for two reasons: 1. to bring alert the public of the fact that cars are spontaneously combusting within a certain area and 2. to bring attention to the laziness and apathy of the MPD/fire departments concerning this matter.

    • the fire chief seems pretty responsive to the public. His email address is dennis.rubin @ I’d certainly give him a chance to address things, if you haven’t already.

  • I’d ask your insurance company for advice.
    I, like you, am sure that this is arson.
    Insurance companies have a vested interest in preventing this crime and more clout than individuals.

  • Thanks to Chief Lanier’s involvement, we’re starting to see some response from police and fire investigators. Hopefully some good can come of all this!

  • As much as I would want you to call your insurance company if you suspect its arson, you may be opening a can of worms. Check your policy first and make sure your policy coverns arson. It would suck to try to do the right thing and then have them reject your claim. Insurance companies will use any excuse to avoid paying.

  • There was a car fire down the alley from our place a couple of months back. The number of car fires lately seems pretty suspicious to me; I can’t imagine parked cars regularly burst into flames of their own accord.

  • I’d throw out the possibility of the newly falling leaves, dry weather, and the many cigarettes tossed into the gutter/street as possible culprits. Impossible to say without more info, if the tire catches fire (rather easy actually) then the whole vehicle can go relatively easily.

  • This looks like a classic case of manipulating the stats to “reduce” crime.

  • I’d call my councilmember, and all the at-large ones (especially mendelson, who chairs the public safety committee). And the fire dept/MPD. Seems like they should be looking more into this, or at least giving you better answers as to why they’re not.

  • It seems awfully suspicous to me, but I think there is a decent liklihood it was mechanical. I had a 2002 Mini Cooper S (the first year they shipped). I had a fire in my engine compartment about an hour after parking it after a very long road trip. The engines of the ‘S’ run very hot and there is a very annoying fan noise people often hear when the car turns off. My fan wouldn’t always turn on because of some sensor issues I was having. I got to my car before major damage was done. There was a well documented thread discussing this phenominon on a web forum called “Mini Mania”. Check it out.

  • There was a car behind our condo building on 14th street between C and D S.E that was burned on the back half. It was parked a half a block away from the Hill Safeway in a well lit area.
    My first thought looking at it was that it was torched.
    It was the trunk end in this case, so probably not the engine combusting.
    This was only two or three weeks ago!

  • Did you say you had a partner, as in you’re gay? I ask because I believe the victim of the car burning on Monroe St NW is also gay. That may just be a coincidence, but it also might mean there’s someone out there targeting gay people. Just a thought. Has this angle been looked at yet?

  • me

    The Post is saying that the police believe it may be a group that is setting the fires…

    Not too much info in this article, but it doesn’t seem like they’re blowing it off as cars spontaneously combusting.

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