Fire departments struggle with battery fires in electric cars

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

We have been lectured repeatedly about how electric vehicles are the way of the future and will be required to save the planet. Funding for recharging stations and related equipement was included in the Democrats’ infrastructure bill, assuming it ever even comes up for a vote. The state of California is so confident that electric cars will solve all of our problems that they are banning the construction of new gas stations in a few years.

But all is not well in electric car land. The nation’s firefighters are now banding together in an attempt to develop training for how to handle the resultant fire when one of these Teslas or other electric cars gets into a high-speed crash and bursts into flames. The problem is that despite not having a tank full of gasoline, electric cars burn longer and more fiercely than automobiles with internal combustion engines. That leads to significant challenges and dangers for first responders. One of them who was interviewed for a report on the subject from NBC news described the cars as being like on of those trick birthday candles that you can never blow out.

It’s the kind of blaze that veteran Chief Palmer Buck of The Woodlands Township Fire Department in suburban Houston compared to “a trick birthday candle.”

On April 17, when firefighters responded to a 911 call at around 9:30 p.m., they came upon a Tesla Model S that had crashed, killing two people, and was now on fire. They extinguished it, but then a small flare shot out of the bottom of the charred hulk. Firefighters quickly put out those flames. Not long after, the car reignited for a third time.

“What the heck? How do we make this stop?’” Buck asked his team.

We covered that Tesla fire in Texas back when it first happened. A large part of the discussion had to do with whether or not self-driving vehicles are really ready for prime time, but the issue with the fire was also a matter of significant concern. And according to NBC, with new models of electric vehicles being rolled out all the time, there are more of these burning electric vehicles showing up than we’re probably hearing about in major news outlets. This has first responders concerned.

So just how bad was the Tesla fire mentioned in the article? Eight firefighters spend seven hours battling the recurring blaze. They used up 28,000 gallons of water, which is more than the department normally uses in an entire month. By comparison, the study notes that the average vehicular fire involving gas-powered vehicles generally uses less than 300 gallons of water and can be extinguished rapidly.

The cause of all this fire and frenzy is the gigantic battery system used in these vehicles. Damaged banks of lithium-ion batteries contain a lot of residual energy and can keep driving up the temperature (and reigniting everything around them) for many hours. There is currently no official training for how to deal with these fires. Tesla’s own first responder’s guide only advises firefighters to “use lots of water.”

Fire hazards aren’t the only concerns being raised over these batteries. Even the New York Times identified massive numbers of lithium-ion batteries as being an environmental catastrophe in the making. All of the mining required to obtain the lithium and zinc needed to manufacture them has environmentalists up in arms. And then there is the question of how you plan to dispose of all of these toxic batteries once their useful life has expired? Portions of them can be recycled, but not nearly all of the parts and materials.

Even if one of your primary issues of concern is climate change and protecting the environment, can we really call the widespread deployment of electric vehicles and the elimination of internal combustion engines a “win” with all of these concerns in mind? It honestly sounds as if we’re just trading one set of problems for another. And besides… we already know how to put out gas fires and have plenty of experience with that.