When you think of ways a snowmobile could fail the first thing that comes to mind is probably not a fire. Similarly, when you think of what could cause a fire, the first thing that pops into your mind is probably not a snowmobile! So why would a snowmobile, in a cold-weather environment, catch fire?
There are several ways the operation of this machine could lead to a fire. For example, snowmobiles, like motor vehicles, have oil-lubricated, fuel-driven engines. Just like a car, these require maintenance in the form of regular oil changes, watching for leaks, and changing filters, etc. If a snowmobile is not properly maintained, the increase of friction inside the engine, or in failed bearings, can be a viable ignition source. Other possibilities are failing to repair leaks or inspect the vehicle before heading out on a long trip.
In addition to improper maintenance of snowmobiles, they can also be used incorrectly. As obvious as this sounds, if the parking brake is inadvertently left applied while travelling, the build-up of heat can start a fire. Several manufacturers include warnings in operator manuals about the possibility of combustibles around the brakes catching fire if the brakes are inadvertently applied or left on while operating.
Manufacturing Design or Installation Defect
Other possibilities for a snowmobile catching fire can originate at the manufacturing and design level. For example, Ski-doo (manufactured by Bombardier Recreational Products) has recently issued a recall for 7,000 of their snowmobiles. The recall on the Transport Canada website stated that there was an issue with a fuel hose connection, which could cause wear on the line and eventually result in a fuel leak. A fuel leak in the presence of a viable ignition source (in this case the hot surface of an exhaust pipe) can easily result in a fire. Although full details of the recall have not been released, an evaluation of the machines could help determine whether this was a poorly installed connection or one that should have been designed with something more rigid or robust.
Snowmobiles have also started to come equipped with similar technology and electronics to what passenger vehicles have. Some snowmobiles have heated handles, most have digital display gauges, and some are now coming out with fully electric models (see Taiga Motors). This allows for an increase in functionality of the snowmobile but also increases potential ignition sources. Battery-powered models will have to incorporate conductors with high-power capabilities, and the many wires will have to be routed properly and protected against chafing. In addition, electrical components generally incorporate circuit boards, switches and relays. Every time a component like this is added, it brings with it a chance for failure and, consequently, a chance for a fire.
A study done in 2008 by the National Fire Protection Association indicated that 23% of vehicle fires (including recreational vehicles such as snowmobiles) were the direct result of an electrical failure. Since then, over 10 years have passed and the amount of electrical equipment in these vehicles has increased substantially. An educated guess would put this number much higher for 2020.
Regardless of the cause of the fire, if you work in insurance in Canada, you are likely to run into a snowmobile fire at one time or another. Knowing the factors associated with snowmobile fires can ensure you stay on the right track and don’t get burned while playing in the snow.