This has been a bad wildfire year for the entire west coast. Summer and fall saw tremendous damage in British Columbia, Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. The destruction didn't stop there. Fires ripped through Northern California in October and sprung up again farther south in December.

You may not be able to stop wildfires from tearing across the landscape, but you can prevent them from damaging your car. Ash and smoke can cause serious damage to the interior and exterior of your favorite machine. Do you know all the dangers? You can't protect yourself and your car if you don't.

Caustic Ash

The coating of ash on your car is the most obvious effect of nearby wildfires. Yes, you want to wash it off, but if you don't do it right, you can severely damage your paint.

Wood ash includes calcium, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, and other hazardous elements. In their dry form, they are inert and cause no threat to your car's finish, but morning dew or light rain activates these chemicals to form corrosive compounds such as potassium hydroxide and calcium carbonate. If left on your car, this acidic paste will devour your clear coat and etch your paint.

Keeping your car inside or under a fitted cover will obviously lower its exposure to ash, but you have to drive. When you do, ash will get on your vehicle, and you'll need to properly clean it off.

A Thorough Bath

Start with a pH-balanced, dedicated automotive soap. Ordinary cleansers may be acidic in nature and hazardous to your paint. Don't use these under any circumstances, especially in wildfire conditions.

Spray and wash your car from top to bottom. This may seem elementary, but don't forget it. Your car can look clean but still have a layer of acidic and abrasive ash if you clean out of order.

Don't use a sponge. It will trap dirt and grit, which you will then scrub into your car's finish. Instead, use microfiber towels. They are much kinder to your paint and will not cloud the surface with swirl marks.

Finish with a diligent drying. Fresh microfiber drying towels will pull every last drop of moisture from your car. Damp ash is the biggest enemy here. A wet car will attract airborne pollutants and turn them into caustic compounds.

Clean your car routinely throughout the wildfire season. Give it a deep loving once the threat has passed to make sure no hazardous ash remains.

You should already be waxing your car regularly, but a preventative coating of carnauba or synthetic polymer wax gives your car an extra layer of protection. Choose a quality microfiber waxing pad. Acidic ash paste will need to eat through the wax before it gets to your clear coat. Plus, it makes your car easier to keep clean.

Keep Your Car Breathing

Mechanics suggest changing your air filter every 10,000 to 20,000 miles, but that figure varies wildly based on conditions. If you've been driving your car through extreme conditions, check your air filter for excessive dust, cracks, debris, or discoloration. When in doubt, change it. Air filters are cheap, and engines are expensive.

Want to put it off? You may end up damaging your spark plugs, ruining your fuel economy, disturbing your air/fuel mix, and eventually corroding your engine. Your mass air flow sensor, which tells your car how much air is flowing to the engine, will start delivering false information to your car's computer.

If you've been driving through the ash and smoke of wildfire territory, your air filter may already be toast. Do your car a favor and replace it as soon as the fires recede.

If you encounter a severe stretch of noxious air, your filter may clog completely. Consider packing a spare if the atmosphere gets really nasty.

Keep Your Passengers Breathing

Wildfire smoke contains numerous hazardous chemicals, including carbon monoxide and carcinogens. Particulate matter as fine as 10 micrometers can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. Extra-fine particles 2.5 micrometers and smaller can penetrate the deepest part of the lungs. This pollution is dangerous for everyone but especially hazardous to youths, elderly, asthmatics, pregnant women, and those with respiratory disease.

The air quality is suffering. You even see people walking about with masks on their faces. Inside your car, you're not much safer. Your cabin has its own air filtration, but is that filter any cleaner than the engine filter you just checked?

Investigate. Remove your cabin air filter and check it for the same signs as the engine filter. Tap it on the ground. If significant amounts of dust fall out, replace it. Take extra care if you routinely drive with children or older people.

Are You Insured?

You always make sure your car's insurance is up to date — but will you be covered in case of fire damage?

Check with your agent. If your car is damaged while parked at home, this is a question for your home owner's insurance. To protect your car while out and about, carry a good comprehensive policy. Consider paying for lower deductibles when the risk increases.

Ask specific questions of your insurance agent to prevent nasty surprises. Don't roll into wildfire season with bare minimum coverage.

The air and the ash are the two biggest threats to your vehicle. Wet wildfire residue can have corrosive effects on your paint. Pollution and particulate matter can threaten your engine and your passengers. Clean your car properly and check your filters regularly to keep wildfires from bringing tragedy to your car.

Staying away is a simple but critical step. Wildfires move fast. They can jump a valley or a road in a moment. Keep current on wildfire news so you don't accidentally drive into the teeth of one. Staying upwind will prevent many problems.

With the right knowledge, the proper gear, and some elbow grease, your car can exit wildfire season shining bright and running great. Golden State Trading carries all the professional grade tools to protect your car and keep it beautiful.

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