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Auto Club: Remove Fire-Related Ash and Soot off Your Vehicles

Firefighter at Mission Hills Fire
Photo Copyright Chris Yarzab

With many parts of Southern California under a blanket of smoke, soot and falling ash from the El Dorado and Bobcat fires, motorists should take steps to remove fire-related debris from the exterior paint of their vehicles.

“Since the automobile is the second largest monetary purchase after the home, motorists want to make sure they maintain their vehicle’s paint finish to maintain the car’s value,” said Dave Skaien, of the Auto Club’s AAA-Approved Auto Repair Program. “It’s especially important to remove ash and soot from vehicles as soon as possible.”

It may take more than one wash to remove ash since it will continue to fall for the next several days. “Motorists may have to repeat washings to keep ash from collecting on the vehicle and scratching and damaging the paint,” said Skaien.  Motorists should note any water restriction rules in their area before deciding to wash their vehicle, he added.

Other tips for caring for your vehicle in the coming weeks:

  1. Whenever possible, garage the vehicle.  Not only is this the best way to keep ash off, it also will protect and prolong the finish on the vehicle, the trim and rubber on tires.  
  1. If you can’t park the vehicle in the garage and depending on local weather conditions, if the vehicle is completely dry, gently wipe the vehicle off with a long-handled car duster to remove the soot and ash. You could also use a leaf blower or compressed air if available. (If there’s a large amount of ash, rinse the ash off of the vehicle and do not attempt to use a duster.) Be sure to dust off the headlights and taillights for maximum visibility.  If you have a car cover, use it.  A car cover also will help keep ash off of the vehicle and protect the painted surface. If you live in an area that experiences marine-layer moisture, do not dust the vehicle off since ash is abrasive and you may risk scratching the paint.
  1. If washing the vehicle at home, wet thoroughly and wash with warm water, a soft mitt, towel or sponge, and formulated car wash soap. Start at the car roof and work your way down and around the panels.  Rinse vehicle thoroughly and dry with a soft clean towel or chamois.
  1. After the fires are over, motorists should inspect and replace, as necessary, the engine air filter and auto technicians should inspect and replace cabin ventilation filters in the passenger compartment. 
  1. If you haven’t changed windshield wipers for the winter season, change them now before cleaning the windshield with wipers. Make sure the windshield wiper fluid reservoir is filled with washer fluid, not water and spray the windshield first to avoid accidentally scratching it.
  1. Keep the sunroof and windows closed. Since wind can carry smoke and can move far beyond the fire areas, run the air conditioner on re-circulate until the outside air quality significantly improves. Once the outside air quality is better, make sure to run the air conditioner set on fresh or vent so you’re moving outside air inside to clear the stale smoky smell. If the interior of the vehicle smells like smoke, add a vehicle air freshener to mask the odor.
  1. Thoroughly vacuum vehicle floor mats and cloth surfaces.  Wear a mask, if necessary. 
  1. When the smoky airs clears, and to minimize the effects of ash and soot on the vehicle’s clear coat, wax your vehicle in the garage when it’s washed and cool. Use a good quality car wax and follow the directions.  Once applied, remove with a clean, soft cloth.  Car wax helps protect the finish against ash, hard water spots and future rainy weather.

Media Contacts

Doug Shupe
LA-based media contact
(512) 659-1632
CST 1016202-80 Copyright © Automobile Club of Southern California. All Rights Reserved.
The Automobile Club of Southern California is a member club affiliated with the American Automobile Association (AAA) national federation and serves members in the following California counties: Inyo, Imperial, Kern, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, and Ventura.