Can Brakes Catch Fire?

Your brakes work incredibly hard to stop your car and keep you safe, even under the harshest conditions. But, unfortunately, all that work can lead to extremely hot temperatures.

The brakes on your car can catch fire, but it usually takes extreme circumstances for that to happen. The most likely causes of a brake fire would be a seized brake caliper or worn-out brake pads. Either of these would cause metal friction and a rapid increase in temperature, which could lead to possible ignition.

Table Of Contents [show]

    A car with hot brakes.
    A car with hot brakes.

    At What Temperature Do Brakes Catch Fire?

    It's important to understand that a brake fire won't usually be caused by any metal components catching fire.

    The metal of these parts can withstand extreme temperatures that are almost always lower than the ignition point of the steel or iron components.

    Instead, the actual ignition will be caused by the temperature of the brake parts getting hot enough to burn the more flammable brake fluid or grease inside the wheel hubs.

    Your car's brake system consists of several different components. Each of these parts is made from other materials, each with a different possible ignition temperature.

    Ignition Temperature of Brake Components

    1. DOT 3 brake fluid: Normally between 500-750 degrees Fahrenheit. Even though DOT 3 brake fluid is non-volatile, it doesn't create chemical vapors that easily combust; it is still a flammable liquid that will burn if it gets hot enough. (1) (2)
    2. Brake pads: Depends on the pads' material, but most can withstand temperatures well over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit without igniting. (3)
    3. Brake rotors and calipers: Similar to brake pads, the rotors and calipers can withstand extremely high temperatures, sometimes even over 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, without igniting. These components are made of metal, so they won't easily catch fire.
    Excessive braking generates extreme heat.
    Excessive braking generates extreme heat.

    Can Brake Pads Cause Fire?

    One of the most likely causes of a brake fire is a worn-out brake pad that has lost all of its pad material and is down to the metal backing plate.

    Brake pads are thick ceramic or composite metallic pad material bonded to a solid metal backing plate.

    This pad material is designed to withstand extreme heat caused by heavy brake use.

    However, once this pad material is completely worn away by normal use and friction, all that's left is the solid metal backing plate.

    This backing plate will grind against the brake rotor and generate much more heat and friction than the pad material would.

    This heat and friction can cause the rotor and caliper to heat up quickly enough to ignite the volatile components of the brakes.

    Can A Seized Brake Caliper Catch Fire?

    A seized brake caliper is the other most likely cause of a brake fire.

    The brake caliper is the part that holds the pads against the rotors. The caliper has a piston inside of it that is forced out by brake fluid pressure when the brake pedal is pressed.

    This piston typically applies just enough pressure to the brake pad and rotor to cause friction to slow your car down.

    Occasionally, the piston can become stuck in its outward position instead of returning to its normal resting position.

    If this happens, it will begin to cause tremendous friction on the brake pads and rotors. It will also prevent the brakes from being able to cool down as they usually would.

    This rapid increase in friction and lack of cooling can easily cause the brake components to reach possible ignition temperatures.

    What Happens If My Brakes Catch Fire?

    If your brakes catch fire, it will be a severe safety risk to you and any other passengers with you or cars on the road.

    Your brakes can quickly lose their stopping power if they get hot enough to ignite.

    If this happens, you will have to act calmly and quickly to get your vehicle off the road.

    Try to safely pull as far off the road as you can onto the shoulder of the road until you can bring your car to a complete stop.

    You may be tempted to shift your transmission to neutral, but you will get extra assistance from your transmission gearing down if you leave it in drive.

    Once you can get your car completely stopped, put it in park and get out of the vehicle as quickly and safely as possible. Call 911 or have someone else call if you aren't able to.

    Be sure to get far enough away from the car that you're out of range of possible injury if the fire spreads to the rest of the vehicle or if your tire gets hot enough to explode.

    A seized brake caliper can generate excessive heat.
    A seized brake caliper can generate excessive heat.

    Why Do My Brakes Smell Like They Are Burning?

    The most likely cause of your brakes' burning smell is a stuck caliper or grinding brake pads.

    Either of these causes will generate too much friction on the metal surface of your brake rotor, which will cause it to begin overheating.

    This overheated metal usually causes the burning smell you may notice coming from your brakes.

    What Happens If You Drive On Grinding Brakes?

    Driving your car with grinding brakes can lead to extensive damage to your whole braking system.

    If your brake pads wear down to the backing plate, that backing plate will begin grinding against your brake rotor.

    If you let this metal-to-metal grinding continue for even a short time, it can ruin your rotor. Even a brand-new rotor can quickly be destroyed by metal grinding.

    This grinding can also cause damage to your calipers from heat, friction, or vibrations caused by metal-to-metal contact.

    A fire extinguisher can extinguish brake fires.
    A fire extinguisher can extinguish brake fires.

    How Do You Extinguish A Brake Fire?

    Since brake fires will usually burn hot enough to ignite the system's axle grease and brake fluid, a dry chemical extinguisher is the best option for controlling a brake fire.

    Water can effectively cool down the affected area but won't extinguish any grease or oil-based flames. It can also cause the fire to spread to other areas of the car, so it should be used carefully.

    Is It Normal For Brakes To Be Hot?

    It's normal for your brakes to be hot while you're driving.

    Since the brakes use friction between the pads and rotors or drums to slow down your car, they generate a good amount of heat.

    Most brakes become more effective as they warm up during normal operation while you're driving around.

    You shouldn't worry about them getting hot if they don't overheat.

    Conclusion

    Your brakes can catch fire under extreme circumstances, but they will almost always give you some prior warning signs that this is close to happening.

    Be sure to listen to your car if it's trying to tell you that you may have a problem with your brakes!

    Mechanic waiting for your question.

    Save time and money by getting online help from a vetted professional mechanic!