Why Are Cars in Miami Always on Fire?

Just another day in Miami traffic.
Just another day in Miami traffic. Screenshots via @OnlyInDade, @OfficialJoelF
click to enlarge Just another day in Miami traffic. - SCREENSHOTS VIA @ONLYINDADE, @OFFICIALJOELF
Just another day in Miami traffic.
Screenshots via @OnlyInDade, @OfficialJoelF
Fire up the 'gram on any given day and — if your feed is as #305 as you say you are — you're bound to see an onslaught of cars en fuego.

There's the video of firefighters frantically hosing down a flaming Honda Civic set to the song "Fire Burning" by Sean Kingston. There's the shot of black smoke billowing from the back of a white sedan on the shoulder of the Palmetto Expressway. In another series of photos, cops direct traffic around a gray pickup that caught fire on I-95.

And those are only from the past week.

For some reason, cars on fire have become synonymous with Miami. But why? New Times set out to find answers.

Social media news guy Joel Franco, a WSVN producer with more than 50,000 Twitter followers, regularly posts photos and videos of vehicle fires. Last Wednesday when New Times reached him by phone, he was monitoring a car fire at that very moment.

"There's actually a big one on 95," he said. "Today I think there were two."

Franco's followers send him at least one or two shots of a car fire per day, usually during rush hour. His theory is that people in Miami are bad at car maintenance.

"My opinion is they aren't keeping up with their maintenance on their cars and their coolant levels are low, which usually causes the car to overheat," he says. "I've never had a car catch fire, but I had one overheat a few years back."
Other local car-fire influencers have different hypotheses. Juan Gonzalez — a fake name for a real guy who helps run @OnlyInDade — says the influx of Instagram videos is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. About seven or eight months ago, he says, people began tagging @OnlyInDade in their photos and videos of vehicle fires. Since then, more of the account's 391,000 followers have followed suit.

"It just became a trend with the brand @OnlyInDade with the cars on fire. When there's a car fire, everyone is tagging @OnlyInDade," Gonzalez says. (The social media gurus who manage the account prefer to maintain some mystery about their true identities.)

Gonzalez says @OnlyInDade has grown far more selective about the videos of car fires it posts. The account often receives "six or seven angles" from the scene of the same incident.

"People say, 'I want to make it on @OnlyInDade,' so, honestly, when they see a car on fire, they send it," he says. "We get so much content right now."

To quantify car fires — and to get a sense of why those vehicles ignite — New Times reached out to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR). Though the department doesn't respond to every vehicle fire in the county, its firefighters put out blazes in unincorporated areas and assist other departments as needed. By some accounts, MDFR is considered the largest fire department in the Southeast.

Last year, MDFR responded to nearly 1,000 vehicles that burst into flames. According to the department's public information office, more than half of the blazes were caused by a "failure of equipment or heat source," strengthening Franco's hypothesis. But about 10 percent — almost 100 car fires — were determined to have been set intentionally. A smaller fraction — only six incidents last year — were due to an "act of nature," presumably something like a lightning strike.

Over the past several years, the number of vehicle fires hasn't drastically risen or declined. Since 2013, MDFR has responded to about 900 to 1,100 car fires per year. That means Gonzalez's theory is likely on the money: It's not that more cars are catching fire in Dade; it's that more people are filming the incidents.

So there you have it: Car fires have always been a part of Miami's DNA. And if you don't want your commute turned into fodder for social media, take your car in for regular maintenance.
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Jessica Lipscomb is news editor of Miami New Times and an enthusiastic Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she has been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Contact: Jessica Lipscomb