CAROLINA BEACH — Freeman Park in Carolina Beach and the State Recreation Area at Fort Fisher are unique in the area, as they are two locations where it is permissible to drive on the beach. But even for those experienced with driving on the unstable terrain, a trip to the beach could send their beach day up in smoke — literally.
In Carolina Beach for example, over the Memorial Day Weekend, a police truck caught fire while patrolling the beach.
It might not be an everyday occurrence, but incidents of vehicles catching fire when driving on the sand is a reality of beach driving. Carolina Beach Fire Chief Alan Griffin said his department responds to these incidents maybe three to five times a year.
Air-down, avoid the headache
It’s not just catching on fire drivers need to worry about, even the most experienced off-road drivers can get stuck in the loose sand and need a hand (or a massive repurposed military truck) to help them break free.
For those drivers who inevitably do get stuck in the sand and cannot remedy the situation with their off-road kit, getting a professional to tow them out can actually save money in the long run.
Tom Toby, the owner of Thomas Towing, has plenty of experience in beach recovery, especially in Carolina Beach.
“We do a lot of the off-road recovery down in Carolina Beach … Some people have this misconception that we are out there on the beach and we charge a ton of money, and there are people down there telling people we charge a ton of money and we don’t. We are down there at the direction of the Carolina Beach Police Department to provide a service to people to ensure they don’t get gouged,” he said in a previous interview with Port City Daily.
While the initial cost of a beach tow might be more than $20 from a passing truck with a winch, the potential damage done by letting someone uninsured recover a vehicle from the sand is high.
As to what actually causes vehicles to catch on fire, Carolina Beach Fire Chief Alan Griffin said it is a number of factors.
“It can be a combination of things, but — yes — letting your air down in your tires is a must, when the vehicle is having to spin and ‘paw’ through thick sand it makes the transmission overheat. In the summer when temps are already high, the transmission overheats and can [cause] lines to overheat and bust. The transmission fluid spraying onto a hot muffler or header on the engine will cause a fire. There are other causes like gas line ruptures, electrical issues, etc. But typically we see fires on hot days and soft sand conditions,” he said.
Preparation is key
The dangers of driving on the sand are not lost on those at Fort Fisher and there are warnings given to drivers making the trek.
“A word of extreme caution: Steep drop-offs and soft sand can cause drivers and their vehicles to become stranded, and vehicles can be further threatened by incoming tides or engine overheating,” a statement from the state parks service says.
Drivers should (but as it happens, will not always heed the warnings of the town or parks department) only drive onto the beach in a suitable four-wheel-drive vehicle. Not all-wheel-drive or two-wheel-drive.
“Four-wheel-drive is a must for the beach. Two-wheel drive and all-wheel-drive vehicles generally do not have adequate traction and get stuck frequently,” according to the National Parks Service.
Another word of advice for drivers is to “air down,” what this means is to lower the air pressure in tires before heading onto the soft sand. A tip from the National Parks Service is “Lower the pressure in all tires to a recommended 20-25 pounds before you drive onto the sand. The softer the sand, the lower the pressure needed for better traction.”
Drivers should also be aware of the ever-changing tides and avoid driving through the water; getting stuck in the surf could lead to a vehicle getting engulfed by an incoming high tide.
The National Parks Service suggests drivers on any beach carry an off-road kit that includes:
tire pressure gauge
first aid kit
- spare tire
- air pump
- tow rope (at least 14 feet long with a load strength of 20,000 pounds.)
- litter bag
- bumper jack with base support board
- extra boards (for traction)
- water (since vehicles can quickly overheat on the sand)
- fire extinguisher
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