Carpocalypse now: Shed fires and how to prevent them

The ultimate nightmare for any street machiner is a garage fire, as SM’s Iain Kelly discovered


September 30 will live in my memory as one of my darkest days. The fire brigade don’t know how the fire in my garage started, but the end result is that my modest man cave has been destroyed, along with all my tools, memorabilia and my 1962 Pontiac Bonneville.

First published in the December 2014 issue of Street Machine. It is a timely reminder of the importance of keeping your shed safe and your ride well insured! The good news is that Iain’s replacement Pontiac project is a ripper, check it out here.

Although it didn’t look like much at the time, for a year I’d been pouring my heart and soul into the rare four-door hardtop model I called ‘Project Boner-Ville’. A straight, almost rust-free, six-metre-long, two-metre-wide barge, I bought it from a mate who had been given it as a parts car when he bought his own ’62 Bonneville in 2012.

Boner-Ville was my first big build, and through working on it I learned the basics of welding, panel beating, painting and more. I had pulled it down to a bare chassis, fixed rust and got it almost to paint stage, with only minimal outside help. Air suspension and a turbo LSx were on the to-do list.

Friends have consoled me that “it was just a car”, and to an extent they’re right. But it was my car that I’d built with my own hands, and I’m gutted by the loss of something I was aching to drive.

While I didn’t see how the fire started, it took hold with startling speed. I only noticed it when my dog wouldn’t stop barking at the back door. What were a few licks of flame in the window soon became a raging inferno as various chemicals, spare parts and the garage itself caught alight.

My first thought was to put it out using my garden hose, but quickly realised how futile that was when the whole back wall went up in flames. From that point I knew I couldn’t save any belongings or the building; I just had to stop it getting to the house. A few neighbours and I manned hoses and extinguishers to try and contain it until the firies arrived.

The smokeys got to our house in amazing time, but it was all for nought. The garage was destroyed within 10 minutes of me first noticing it.

It was my car that I’d built with my own hands, and I’m gutted by the loss

They asked what chemicals were inside and took special precautions around welding gas, in case it exploded or the valve melted off the cylinder and it became a high-pressure torpedo. They also asked about the shed’s construction as, being 50-odd years old, the garage was made out of asbestos-laden material. If you think your garage or shed has asbestos in its construction, tell the fire fighters and your insurance company straight away.

We got onto the insurance company quick-smart. The fire fighters told us to lodge the claim immediately as they knew the building was compromised and could be a hazard, so clean-up needed to happen as an emergency.

Once the fire was out (a two-hour process), we were taken inside and the commander did a hand-over, signing over responsibility for the site.

Of course, even if you’re properly insured [see more below], you’re going to have to be prepared to lose your memorabilia. It’s this loss of carefully collected mementoes that hurts me the most, even compared to the pain of losing a much-loved project car. I should have been proactive with my fire safety and stored such important items in a fire-proof box, or at least had them in something I could have easily grabbed.

Much of this information seems painfully logical after the event, but it was something I’d never given a second thought to before the fire happened. Hopefully SM readers can get something positive out of this situation.

I knew I couldn’t save any belongings or the building; I just had to stop it getting to the house


While the fire fighters couldn’t tell me exactly what started the fire, there were a few areas they considered common sources of ignition.

Having a beer fridge in your garage is an Aussie tradition, but it is also a massive fire hazard, as dust can build up around the electric motor and catch fire if the motor shorts out.

The firies also mentioned that plenty of blazes start with a car (or engine) on fire, which spreads quickly.

Other common causes of fires include batteries charging unattended or electronic devices on stand-by, fibrous insulation around hot downlights, overloaded circuits, and grinding or welding sparks hitting rags or chemicals. It’s a good idea to regularly wash down surfaces that have been soaked in flammable chemicals, in order to limit build-up.

Damage from extinguishing the fire is also a common problem. Fire fighters’ main objective is putting the fire out rather than protecting your property, so both the building and its contents are at risk of being damaged by water.

While open shelves are cheap and simple to construct, keeping as many contents as possible packed inside steel cupboards will help limit the damage from a fire and the water used to put it out.

It would pay to have a licensed electrician on standby once the fire is out, as circuits in the burned room will need to be isolated before power can be restored to your site.

You should also try to clean extinguisher dust or foam off any painted surfaces as soon as you have been given the all-clear.

Some common causes of garage fires:

1. Grinding sparks and flammable chemicals

2. Unattended electrical devices

3. Bar fridges


Immediately after a fire you need to get your insurance company to make your site secure. This is massively important – if some wally walks into your burned-out building and gets hurt, you’re liable. The fact my garage was made from asbestos helped speed up this process for me.

I am forever grateful to my friends who work for Shannons, as they made me take out laid-up cover on the Pontiac. Without it, I’d have nothing to show for all that hard work and, while I can never replace Boner-Ville, I can at least buy something old and cool.

Laid-up cover protects project cars or vehicles that are off the road for an extended period. With this in mind, also make sure you keep this policy up to date with what work has been done. Call your insurance company every couple of months just to update what you’ve bought for it or have done to it. You’ll be surprised at how quickly the odd tie-rod end or bit of rust-repair work adds up.

To make your contents claim simple, you should have copies of the receipts for any car parts or tools, down to the smallest magnet or ruler. All my tools burned along with the paperwork for my project car, making my claim harder to prove.

If you don’t have receipts, take photos of your tools and keep the list updated on your contents insurance. Scheduling a quick audit of contents every six months can help you keep on top of this and make sure you’re not under-insured.


If your garage goes under in a flood, don’t enter the building. Live electricity, chemicals or untreated waste water are all potentially lethal hazards.

If you’re insured, get your insurance company to organise clean-up, though this is likely to take some time given a flood rarely affects only one property and multiple claims slow the process down.

As floodwater is graded as a potential biohazard, any contents or parts of the building that can soak up water, like Gyprock, have to be removed and disposed of.


After the 2011 Queensland floods many insurance claims were denied because of technicalities in how the natural disaster was worded.

While the end result was the same, insurance agencies argued whether damage was caused by a storm or by tidal flooding. Always check the Product Disclosure Statement for your policy, as it will step out the difference between storm and flood damage.

The rough breakdown is that water ingress is considered flooding when it is caused by tidal waterways backing up, while storm damage covers hail or flash floods from downpours.


If you live in a rural area, or have a shed in an area surrounded by trees, you need to be proactive with fire precautions. Gutter guards and regular clean-ups to stop rubbish building up on the roof is the first line of defence.

Embers are the biggest cause of building destruction in a bushfire, so a sprinkler system on the roof will help prevent fires starting in gutters or eaves. One common cause of shed fires in rural areas is grinding or welding near fuel drums or flammable chemicals, even when they’re located outside the shed.

Welding blankets are an excellent way to prevent fires from sparks thrown during fabrication.