Yes, Wildfire Smoke and Ash is Harmful to Car Paint

Sadly, every year there are multiple large wildfires that spark up across the land. The smoke and ash from those fires can drift from state to state. Also, the smoke and ash do not discriminate on which car’s finish it will land on. They’ll happily cover paint on a Ferrari just as much as a Ford. So, what do smoke and ash do to your car’s paint? Well, it is not good

Smoke’s corrosive particles will eat away paint finishes and clear coats

Volcanic ash covers an SUV in Indonesia
An ash covered a car caused | Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

The smell of smoke from a controlled fire can bring a sense of calm around the campfire. Scents of oak, hickory, or some other wood that is burning can bring a sense of peace. But, it can also be a terrible thing for a car’s. Smoke carries with it corrosive particles. Those particles can eat away at the paint finish of a car or its components. It is called, chemical etching. 

It has been said for people not to buy a car that belonged to a smoker. There’s a reason for that. Smoke can get everywhere. That includes electronics. Corrosive particles on the circuit boards of electronics or on solder points can become problems over time. Exterior paint finishes can also experience the same corrosive effects, possibly leaving small pits in the clear coat.

Ash is like sandpaper to paint finish

Winds and smoke can carry with them a lot of ash. For example, when Mount Saint Helen’s exploded in March of 1980, the ash made its way around the globe by the wind. Weeks later, I was visiting Puerto Rico, an island in the Caribbean thousands of miles away from the volcanic eruption. The ash was still falling from the sky. It covered everything. Wiping the ash from the glass and windows was no big deal. However, the ash is like sandpaper. So, wiping a paint-covered part of a car was, and is, frowned upon. 

Ash will also carry with it Potassium and Calcium. In a dry state, left at rest on the car, it will not harm the finish. However, when it comes in contact with water like on a dewy or foggy night, those chemicals and the water form a corrosive agent that is detrimental to paint the longer it sits. 

How to take care of ash on a car

Many people like to use a car duster to sweep away dust. But with ash, the same car duster wiping action can leave damage behind to the clear coat, maybe even down to the paint. So, stay away from anything that might scrub the surface. The abrasiveness of the ash is bad news. 

Two workers aim pressure washers at an Audi to clean off the paint finish
Workers at Divisadero Touchless Car Wash use high pressure hoses to rinse off a car | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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The best way to clean a car that has been covered in ash is to wash it. Preferably, that wash would come from a jetwash or another scrub-free manner. The high-volume water will lift the contaminant from the paint finish. Then the ash will roll or drip off. Then, the dry the car immediately. 

Smoke and ash are villains against a car’s paint finish. They may not succeed in destroying a car’s shine overnight. What they can do, however, is weaken the paint in spots so that over time the weak areas give way and reveal pitting or fading. So, clean up after them quickly. But do it carefully.