Electric car fires, a new challenge for American firefighters

(New York) A car that caught fire more than three weeks after arriving at the junkyard, 17,000 liters of water, the emergency construction of a mini-pool to immerse the electric batteries: The fire of a Tesla caught Sacramento District in early June by surprise.

Posted at 10:49 am

Juliette MICHEL with Joshua MELVIN in Washington
Media Agency France

Extinguished, the fire did not cease to resume. Even after the car was turned on its side and the water was aimed straight at the batteries.

“We didn’t expect to face so many challenges” to bring the blaze under control, says Parker Wilbourn, captain of the California Metropolitan Fire Department.

As hybrid and electric vehicles become more widespread, “we are entering a new era of fire, we need to adapt and find solutions,” he believes.

Because “every second counts” in the event of an incident, General Motors (GM) announced on Thursday that it would be expanding its first-aid training program to include operations on electric vehicles in the USA and Canada. The group currently markets four models in this category and intends to offer 30 by 2025.

The aim is to provide technical information on batteries, share best practices and “dispel preconceived notions,” says a press release: For example, remember to turn off the engine because that of electric vehicles makes no noise, or fight against it, you should do not put water on the batteries.

Electric and hybrid vehicles are still very much a minority on American roads, but they accounted for nearly 10% of cars bought in the United States last year, according to Cox Automotive.

The US Highway Safety Agency (NHTSA) says it doesn’t have enough data on electric battery car fires to draw any conclusions.

The National Association of Protection against Fires (NFPA) assures that the latter are not a priori more common or more dangerous than those of petrol cars.

On the other hand, they require specific procedures, adds the organization, which has been offering specific training since 2010.

“Thermal Runaway”

It usually takes a lot more water, between 11,350 liters and 30,300 liters roughly according to a first-aid attention guide prepared by Tesla. Which is not necessarily easy in rural areas where there are no fire hydrants.

It is also common for batteries to catch fire again several hours or even days after the initial incident due to a phenomenon known as “thermal runaway” that can occur with damaged lithium-ion batteries. Tesla recommends monitoring battery temperatures for at least 24 hours after a fire.

“Firefighters are used to the risks” associated with electricity, notes the NFPA’s Michael Gorin. “But not in the car. »

Manufacturers are required to publish a first aid guide for every model they make.

In a report released in late 2020, the NTSB recommended manufacturers of vehicles equipped with lithium-ion batteries use the same format with specific information to extinguish and monitor a fire.

In early June, she pointed out that only eight of the 22 affected manufacturers had fully integrated their recommendations.

Firefighters arrive at the scene “not knowing what to do,” notes Michael Brooks, general counsel for the Center for Motor Vehicle Safety. “How do you evacuate a passenger from a burning electric vehicle? How do you know how fire can spread? »

Like conventional cars, those equipped with batteries can catch fire when stationary.

GM last summer advised owners of certain electric Chevrolet Bolts not to park them indoors or charge them unsupervised overnight before initiating a mass recall of the model.

Faults in batteries from the South Korean group LG could possibly trigger fires. GM eventually had to halt production of the Bolt for several months.

NHTSA in April initiated a special case for LG batteries involved in multiple recalls by Volkswagen, Chrysler (Stellantis), Hyundai, GM and Mercedes brands.

All modes of transportation powered by electric batteries are affected: To avoid fires, the agency that oversees New York’s public housing has proposed banning all electric bikes or electric bike batteries from homes and public spaces that have at least have the same title as mopeds.

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