Parked BMWs bursting into flames leave owners with questions

BMW owners across the country are asking how their parked car could catch fire.

— -- Vehicle owners and fire departments across the country are asking BMW to explain how some parked cars could suddenly burst into flames.

After initially saying they were unaware of any such incidents, a BMW spokesman says the company has investigated the fires brought to its attention by ABC News and has “not seen any pattern” related to a “product defect.”

For one such owner, Bill Macko, BMW wasn’t just a car. It was an identity.

The 55-year-old small business owner says he had bought seven luxury vehicles from the German automaker since 2000. He was a dues-paying member of the BMW Car Club of America, so he read BMW magazines, carried BMW luggage and wore BMW clothes. He was such a BMW enthusiast that he became, he says, a kind of unofficial brand ambassador, introducing so many new customers to the local BMW dealership that the salesmen occasionally cut him a check for his services.

“I was an aficionado,” Macko said. “I had brought so many people on board to BMWs, it was crazy. Everybody knew that I loved them so much … I mean, I lived the product, you know?”

On the night of Dec. 1, 2015, however, Macko says his 2008 BMW X5 suddenly and inexplicably caught fire as it sat parked in his garage in Olney, Maryland. Macko’s wife had just returned from a short drive, parked the car and turned it off. She entered the house and told Macko she noticed a strange smell in the car, and when Macko walked into the garage to check it out, he arrived just in time to hear a “snap, crackle, pop” and see the car burst into flames.

Macko and his wife ran from the house as the fire engulfed the garage and spread throughout both the lower and upper floors. Dozens of firefighters arrived to battle the blaze, and the Mackos watched, from a neighbor’s yard, as their home burned to the ground.

“You cannot do a thing,” Macko said. “That’s the sad part about it.”

Macko had brought the car in for service at the dealership just days before, so he initially thought the fire had been caused by the new battery the mechanics had installed, but once the fire was out, he got another surprise. He learned he’s not the only BMW owner to be left asking questions in the wake of a mysterious fire that started after the car was shut off.

Like many car manufacturers, BMW has issued recalls over the years for fire-related problems, but an ABC News investigation launched in collaboration with ABC-owned stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Raleigh, found more than 40 fires occurring in parked cars across the country in the last five years involving vehicles that did not have open recalls for fire-related issues.

Fire officials in Westchester County outside New York City told WABC-TV they were stunned when they learned how long a 2003 BMW had been sitting parked before it caught on fire.

“The owner told us that the car had been parked for at least four, three or four days,” Mamaroneck Fire Chief Tracey Schmaling told WABC investigative reporter Jim Hoffer. “Which we thought was a little peculiar.”

According to KABC in Los Angeles, a 2011 BMW parked overnight caught fire last month, damaging the car but sparing the Darth Vader costume its owner Steve Copeland wore in performances at children’s charity events.

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“I had planned to do an event the next day, so Darth Vader's sitting on a mannequin in the front seat, and the police and the fire department thought somebody was in the car when it was on fire, so they busted the windows out,” Copeland told KABC. “A couple of the cops thought it was pretty funny. [Darth Vader] has been through a fire before, if you know the story.”

And WTVD in Raleigh spoke to Danielle Emerson, a mother of three, who says she was sleeping when her 2011 BMW caught fire in her garage but sprung out of bed to battle the blaze with a garden hose until fire engines arrived.

“I need to know what happened,” she told WTVD’s Diane Wilson. “That could have killed us.”

But even as BMW owners and fire departments around the country have raised concerns about these alarming incidents, several BMW owners -- including car club member Macko – told ABC News that BMW gave them the cold shoulder after the fire.

“You’re at wit’s end, you don’t know what to do,” Macko said. “I feel like I’m just tossed aside. You know, it’s just a number. And so, it’s disheartening, I guess, when you’re so loyal to a particular product or brand or whatever and then you’re treated like this. Not even an apology.”

BMW says it has nothing to apologize for. In a written statement, BMW said that with almost five million BMW vehicles on U.S. roads, such fire incidents are rare, and based on its investigation, “we have not seen any pattern related to quality or component failure. Vehicle fires can result from a wide variety of external reasons unrelated to product defect.”

A spokesperson suggested several other potential causes of car fires other than a manufacturing defect, including a lack of maintenance, improper maintenance by unauthorized mechanics, aftermarket modifications, rodent nesting and even arson.

According to auto safety expert Sean Kane, the founder and president of Safety Research & Strategies, the risk of car fires is not an uncommon problem, but they usually occur in cars that are in operation. The mystery of car fires that start after the engine has been turned off, Kane says, may stem from the fact that modern vehicles are never fully powered down.

“A lot of the power to these electronic systems is going to remain on in the vehicle even when the vehicle’s off,” Kane told ABC News. “And once the electrical system starts going, you’ve got plenty of combustibles under the hood.”

ABC News turned over its findings to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency charged with enforcing vehicle performance standards. While the agency has not found evidence of a safety defect, they issued a statement directing drivers to their website to “report potential safety issues to the agency, including strange and unexplainable incidents involving their vehicles.”

In South Korea, however, the government is taking action. Korean safety officials launched an investigation after a series of car fires involving BMWs -- some parked, some not – attracted sustained media attention.

Koh Sungwoo, a South Korean transport ministry official, told ABC News that BMW initially suggested that one of the causes of the fires may have been poor maintenance by unauthorized dealers before acknowledging a fuel line defect affecting some diesel cars. The company issued a recall covering those cars, but the government investigation is still ongoing. Koh said that while poor maintenance and defective fuel lines may explain some of the fires, they do not explain all of them.

“We don’t know the exact cause yet. We are still investigating,” Koh said. “We have to investigate those incidents because it’s very dangerous to the people in Korea.”

Joseph Santoli, a New Jersey-based attorney who has sued BMW in the past, believes “it’s a pattern that BMW is uniquely qualified to remedy,” but so far, Santoli told ABC News’ Brian Ross, “they have not.” Several angry BMW owners, Santoli said, have contacted him to explore their legal options.

“I have heard from owners that when they confront BMW about their incident, they’re told that this is the first time that BMW has ever heard of it,” Santoli told ABC News. “I think some of it is an example of BMW burying their heads in the sand.”

BMW has offered a discount on a replacement vehicle to some owners; in other cases, the company has paid cash settlements, in which case the company has insisted vehicle owners also sign a non-disclosure agreement.

The company says those “goodwill offers” are just “good business to provide support to our loyal customers.” BMW insists non-disclosure clauses are executed “to ensure that each incident is evaluated and then appropriately resolved on its own merits,” but Santoli believes the true intention of the arrangements is to ensure that the public is less likely to hear about a potential problem.

“That’s clearly what they’re intending to do,” Santoli said. “They’re intending to prevent anyone from sharing notes or comparing, or the media finding out.”

Bill Macko, meanwhile, still isn’t sure when he might be able to return home. He and his wife have been staying with relatives while the rebuilding process inches along at what feels to him like a glacial pace.

“I’d like to sleep in my own bed,” Macko said in March. “We’re working on 15 months, so it would be nice.”

Asked if he would ever feel safe enough to park his car in his garage again, Macko said he would.

“I’ll park my vehicles in there,” he said, “but it’ll never be a BMW. That won’t happen. No. Not at all.”

ABC News' Laura Sanicola and Taylor Harris contributed to this report.