Firefighters: Electric vehicle fires present new challenges


(NewsNation) — Although less common than gas-powered vehicle fires, electric vehicle (EV) fires can be extremely difficult to put out and in many cases, require 10 times as much water to extinguish.

It’s a reality fire departments across the country are starting to grapple with as more Americans switch to electric vehicles amid record-high gas prices.

“We’re at that critical point where the consumer-driven world we live in is pushing these vehicles out and the fire department is playing catch up,” said Lt. Tanner Morgan with the Grand Prairie Fire Department near Dallas, Texas.

In a typical gas-powered vehicle fire, crews often put out flames with less than 1,000 gallons of water. But in electric vehicle fires, high voltage lithium-ion batteries are susceptible to “thermal runaway,” an uncontrollable self-heating state, which means significantly more water is needed.

“The protocol is to start using copious amounts of water, up to 3,000 gallons, so that’s what we started doing,” said Fremont Fire Department Battalion Chief Gary Ashley after an EV caught fire following a wreck in 2019.

Earlier this month, firefighters in Sacramento needed 4,500 gallons of water to extinguish a Tesla fire after the previously damaged car spontaneously ignited while parked in a junkyard. Despite spraying water directly on the car’s battery compartment, the vehicle continued to reignite, the agency wrote in an Instagram post.

Tesla’s own emergency response guide for the Model S warns that battery fires can require between 3,000 to 8,000 gallons of water to fully extinguish the flames.

Morgan is concerned many agencies don’t have access to the amount of water needed to put out EV fires, pointing out that the typical fire engine does not carry thousands of gallons.

It’s a problem experts say will disproportionately affect parts of the country where fire hydrants are less common.

“In rural areas, especially on interstates where there are no hydrants, this is going to create a logistical issue for emergency response agencies as they’re going to have to shuttle the water up that they need,” said Tom Miller with the National Volunteer Fire Council.

Although more difficult to extinguish, at least one study suggests electric vehicle fires are significantly less common. An analysis by AutoInsuranceEZ examined federal data and found there were 25 EV fires for every 100,000 electric vehicles sold. By comparison, there were more than 1,500 gas-powered vehicle fires per 100,000 sold, analysts determined.

That fact is not lost on EV owners who say the additional anti-collision safety features help further reduce the risk of fires.

“The chance of getting into an accident, into a fire, is far lower than any other car. So if you reduce the total number of accidents, the chances of getting into a fire are much lower,” said Malini Sexena, who owns a Tesla.

By 2030, electric vehicles are expected to account for more than half of all new car sales. That trend has made EV fire education a priority for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

In 2020, the federal agency released a lengthy report outlining the safety risks posed by lithium-ion battery fires, highlighting a California incident that required 20,000 gallons of water to put out.

The NTSB has urged all EV manufacturers to educate first responders about the specific risks related to battery configurations that often vary between makes and models.

“The vehicles on our roadways are changing in some fundamental ways and these changes are creating a different set of risks and hazards that the responders need to be aware of,” said Tom Barth, the special investigations chief at the NTSB.

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