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The Fiery Consequence: How Smoke and Ash from Wildfires Can Damage Your Vehicle's Paint

Updated: May 6

As we grapple with an increasing number of wildfires, even just the smoke from those happening thousands of miles away, the impact extends beyond the destruction of natural habitats and reduced air quality. One often overlooked consequence of these infernos is the damage they can inflict on our vehicles. The ash that settles on cars during and after wildfires may seem harmless, but it can cause significant harm to your vehicle's mechanical function and paintwork. Let’s delve into the reasons why ash is so bad for your car and provide some insights on how to mitigate the damage caused by wildfire ash.


Understanding Wildfire Smoke and Ash:

Wildfire smoke consists of tiny, lightweight particles that are generated when organic material burns. It is composed of carbon, minerals, and other compounds released into the atmosphere during the fire. These microscopic particles can travel long distances, settling on any surface in their path, including your car.

Smoke particles trapped in a filter under extreme magnification
Smoke particles trapped in a filter under extreme magnification.

The Impact on Mechanical Function:


Your vehicle needs fresh air in order to function. The engine requires a supply of clean air to properly combust fuel. It also needs a clean supply of air to supply to you inside the car as you drive. When wildfire particulate is present the tiny particles are captured by your car's engine intake filter as well as the cabin air filter (if equipped). While it is necessary to change these filters with some regularity, wildfire smoke significantly shortens the life of these filters by clogging them faster than would occur in normal conditions. This reduces the ability of that filter to transfer air to the engine or into the cabin, significantly impacting engine performance as well as your vehicles ability to push clean air through your A/C system.


The Impact on Vehicle Paint:

Although ash may appear harmless, it can wreak havoc on your vehicle's paint due to its composition and physical properties.


Individual soot/ash particle under magnification.
Individual soot/ash particle under magnification.

The first is abrasion and scratching. Wildfire ash particles while very tiny, are often gritty and abrasive. They are capable of scratching the vehicle's clear coat if any contact is made with the surface while covered in ash or smoke residues. Over time, this can result in noticeable swirl marks, fine scratches, and a dull appearance.


The chemical compounds in wildfire ash also contain acidic compounds, especially if the fire consumed vegetation that releases such substances when burned. These acids can interact with the chemicals present in the paint, causing corrosion and etching.


Minimizing the Damage:

While it is almost impossible to avoid wildfire ash, there are several measures you can take to mitigate the damage to your vehicle immediately following a period of time when ash is present.


Start with checking your air filters. Again, this is something that should be done regularly anyways but should be done immediately following times when there is significant ash or smoke in the air to make sure the filter isn’t clogged. If you notice a smokey smell in your car, even after the smoke and wildfire ash has left the area odds are your cabin air filter needs replacement.


To make sure your paintwork stays shiny it is recommended to thoroughly wash all exterior surfaces as soon as possible. Because the smoke and/or ash particles are abrasive washing with a touchless method, like at your local Autowash location, is recommended. Our non-corrosive soaps will neutralize any acidic compounds in the smoke or ash residues and safely remove them without causing harm. At a minimum, using an Autowash self-serve location to thoroughly rinse your vehicle to remove any standing ash on the surface is recommended.

Avoid wiping the exterior of your car prior to washing at all costs! Never attempt to remove smoke or ash residues from your vehicle's surface by simply wiping the surface. Even if you use a high-quality microfiber towel the individual, abrasive particles of soot can introduce tiny micro-scratches to your paint.


In the end, while the immediate dangers of wildfires are evident, the aftermath of these catastrophic events can extend to unexpected areas, such as the paintwork of our vehicles. Understanding the potential damage caused by wildfire smoke and/or ash and taking appropriate measures to minimize its impact is crucial to maintaining a shiny, well-running vehicle. By promptly addressing key areas like filters and washing, you can help safeguard your vehicle's paint from scratches, etching, and other forms of damage.


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