Lithium-ion battery fires in electric vehicles pose new challenges for firefighters

When a Tesla caught fire in East Marion last month after a head-on collision, gray smoke billowed into the night and the flames rose 15 to 20 feet high. Two occupants remained trapped inside as volunteer firefighters sprayed water on the crash.

It took three fire trucks, two fire engines and two hours to bring it under control, fire and police officials said.

“The flames were much more intense and the heat given off was much more intense,” Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said of the Tesla.

Those in the Tesla died, as did two people in the Ford Explorer involved in the collision.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW While EV fires remain rare, experts say first responders are being trained and are looking for new tools to deal with EVs as the cars’ popularity has skyrocketed. Auto fires with lithium-ion batteries burn hotter, emit more smoke and require more water to put out, local and state fire safety experts said. Firefighters may have difficulty accessing and cooling the battery compartment, Nassau County fire officials said.

The Tesla fire has exposed a unique set of challenges facing first responders fighting lithium-ion battery car fires that burn hotter, emit more smoke and require more water to extinguish, local and state fire experts said.

“She [lithium-ion batteries] burn unlike anything else we’ve dealt with in the past, such as Your standard fuels in a house or your standard car fire,” said Michael Uttaro, Nassau County chief fire marshal.

Though electric vehicle fires remain rare, experts say first responders are being trained and looking for new tools as the cars’ popularity has exploded.

According to Atlas Public Policy, an electric vehicle research firm, the state has 136,587 electric cars, more than three times the number in 2019. According to Cox Automotive, a research and advisory firm, EV sales increased 65% nationwide last year compared to 2021 %.

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Most all-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries, according to the US Department of Energy.

Few nationwide EV fire statistics

Uttaro said the bureau began tracking fires from lithium-ion batteries in cars and other devices in September last year. Since then, Nassau County has experienced an electric vehicle fire and four other lithium-ion battery-started fires, including one fatality. Suffolk’s Department of Fire, Rescue & Emergency Services does not keep national statistics, a spokesman said.

Because there aren’t as many EVs on national roads and there is a small accident sample, it’s unclear whether EVs are more likely to catch fire than gas-powered vehicles, officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

According to fire experts, lithium-ion technology challenges firefighting methods that have been used to extinguish gasoline engine fires for more than a century.

John D’Alessandro, secretary of the New York State Fire Department, which has 45,000 members, called the potential dangers “a very big deal” and hopes firefighters will learn more effective tactics with their experience.

“Hopefully this teaches us how to solve the problem as soon as possible,” said D’Alessandro, who is also a Saratoga County firefighter. He said laws and regulations are needed to improve safety around lithium-ion batteries.

Andrew Klock, senior manager for applications and development at the National Fire Protection Association, said firefighters need to know what to aim for in an electric vehicle fire, rather than just using more water.

“For example, you don’t just pour water on the engine compartment, you don’t pour water on the roof of the car. What you need to do is use water effectively and get it where the battery is, or very close by,” Klock said.

Joe Agovino, Special Assistant to the Commissioner of Suffolk FRES added that there has been ongoing lecture training across the county since 2021.

“Our training will evolve as we continue to provide training on the subject as new information is made available through our website,” he said in an email.

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Most electric cars are powered by lithium-ion battery packs, which consist of thousands of cells encased in a hard case that is usually attached to the car’s underbody. Firefighters may have trouble accessing and cooling the battery compartment, which requires more resources, including more manpower and additional engine companies, thousands more gallons of water and more time to fight, Nassau County fire officials said.

“These battery fires burn from the inside out, which is why these fires are so difficult to put out. Because the water can’t get into the battery, the fire starts inside the battery,” said Michael Mennella, a hazmat specialist with the Nassau County Fire Marshal. “In a normal fire, you would apply water to the surface and we could put out the fire… so we can’t put out the fire that easily.”

He said the extra time it takes to fight the fires could potentially strain resources.

When a cell in the battery pack overheats and ignites, a chain reaction called thermal runaway occurs, where higher temperatures begin to affect neighboring cells, causing the fire to spread internally. There is also a risk that the package could reignite hours or days after being extinguished due to “stranded energy” that may linger inside, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Fires aren’t the only challenge EV firefighters face.

During emergencies, firefighters sometimes have to cut open vehicles to extricate victims, but there are electric shock hazards in designated areas of electric cars, and firefighters need to be familiar with any car, D’Alessandro said. Each manufacturer has a safety guide for different models that includes information about high voltage areas. For example, the Tesla Model 3 has “no-cut” zones due to high voltage, gas springs, or other hazards.

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‘Outside the Box’

Craig Johnson, the second deputy chief of the Greenport Fire Department, said to stay proactive, firefighters were trained early last month. The department is also considering buying blankets made of special material to smother the fire. Another tool under consideration is a “basement hose head” that slides under the vehicle and squirts water.

“These vehicles force you to think outside the box a little bit,” Johnson said.

Another potential risk is saltwater flooding. After flooding in Florida from Hurricane Ian in September, 12 EV fires were reported in the weeks that followed.

Residual salt in the battery can lead to overheating. A Tesla electric vehicle caught fire after a flood in Freeport last December, the Nassau County Fire Marshal’s office said. There were no injuries.

So far, data shows that non-accidental fire risks are rare for electric vehicles, but the likelihood increases with age, according to Joe Young, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. He added that given the young age of EVs and relatively small numbers, it’s probably too early to draw firm conclusions about whether they’re more likely to catch fire spontaneously.

Rosemary Mascali, chair of the Education & Outreach Subcommittee at Drive Electric Long Island, a coalition of advocacy groups, said fires in electric cars are less common than in gasoline cars, whether involved in accidents or not. Tesla, she said, reported five car fires per billion miles driven, compared to 55 fires per billion miles driven in gas-powered cars.

As the number of electric vehicles continues to grow — government regulations require all vehicles sold to be zero emissions by 2035 — first responders want to make sure they’re ready for the change.

The EV vehicles will prompt fire safety experts to “up our game to try and beat the challenge of what these devices do when they catch fire,” Uttaro said.