Fire that destroyed nearly 4,000 cars at RSW rental lot, causing $100M in damage ruled an accident

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A helicopter unit responds to the fire at the rental overflow area of RSW airport Friday, April 3, 2020. Credit: John Broadhead.

A huge fire damaged thousands of rental cars near the Southwest Florida International Airport back in April, and now investigators have ruled the fire accidental, citing potential hot exhaust over dry grass.

The 15-acre fire on April 3, destroyed 3,991 vehicles parked at a grass overflow rental car parking lot near Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW).

The damage was estimated to be around $100 million, all rental cars from various companies.

Charlotte County Chief Pilot Shane Engelauf was up in the air that day flying the Huey and completed over 80 drops over the blaze. He recounted that day, saying, “All the cars that were burning; the tires, the batteries all that kind of stuff are exploding and it was putting out a really thick black smoke. Typically you can kind of see through the smoke when it is just brushfires, but this situation, you couldn’t see through it at all.”

In May, recycling companies removed the burned vehicles. About 2,500 of the vehicles were from Enterprise, and Avis and were taken to Garden Street Iron and Metal to be turned into scrap metal, which can then be recycled and sold. Trademark Metals moved more than 1,000 destroyed Hertz vehicles to their Punta Gorda location.

The lead investigator with DFS Division of Investigative & Forensic Services wrote as a conclusion in the 15-page report:

“After my examination of the fire scene, examination of physical evidence, knowledge of fire development, witness information, and supporting documents and environmental conditions, I determined the fire originated near ground level. This was likely caused by a hot exhaust system contacting dry grass underneath a vehicle. Once the fire started, surrounding combustible items would have ignited with available oxygen and allowed the fire to spread rapidly onto the surrounding grasses and vehicles. I am classifying this fire as Accidental.

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