“You can’t put them out. They don’t go out. They reignite. And they release tremendously toxic gases.” Those are the words of Tom Purcell, Chief of the Wakefield, MA fire department as quoted in a January, 2023 CBS News Boston article by Kristina Rex. Purcell was describing his department’s attempt to extinguish the fire that erupted after a Tesla hit a guardrail on Interstate 95. He was referring to battery electric vehicles.
The Tesla’s driver (who was not injured) lost control after hitting a patch of black ice and the car came to rest partially on top of a guardrail. When a crew was attempting to remove the car, the guardrail came in contact with the battery and punctured it. The car then burst into flames. Chief Purcell also noted, “If those battery packs go into thermal runaway, which is just a chemical reaction, then they get super-heated and they run away.” Runaway battery fires can reach temperatures of 2500 degrees and it doesn’t matter how much water is poured on such fires, the fire will reignite.
Fire isn’t a “Tesla problem”, it’s an electric vehicle/lithium-ion battery problem. Just a few months ago, an unoccupied CT transit bus, parked in a Hamden, Connecticut lot burst into flames and was completely destroyed. Ironically, this fire occurred shortly after Connecticut governor Ned Lamont announced that as of January, 2024, the state would no longer purchase diesel busses.
The potential for a fire exists in all vehicles, whether powered by an internal combustion engine or electric motors. However, except in cases of violent accidents, when a gas- or diesel-powered vehicle catches fire, the flames start in one location and spread comparatively slowly. The flames are easier to extinguish and rarely reignite after being doused. It’s also relatively rare for a conventional vehicle to burst into flames when it’s parked. On the other hand, Battery Electric Vehicle fires erupt with such ferocity, they quickly engulf the entire vehicle.
Data concerning the frequency of fires in electric vehicles is highly questionable. The AutoinsuranceEZ.com web site contains an article that claims hybrid vehicles have the highest incidence of fires with a rate of 3,474.5 fires per 100,000 vehicles. Internal combustion-engined vehicles are claimed to have 1,529.9 fires per 100,000 vehicles. Electric vehicles are claimed to catch fire at a rate of 25.1 per 100,000 vehicles.
Yet, in the same article, beneath a headline entitled, “Advice from Experts Around the Country”, the data is considerably different. One expert notes, “A study by the University of Tennessee found that electric car fires are more common than those in gasoline cars.
The study found that electric car fires occur in 3 out of every 1,000 starts, while gas car fires occur in 1 out of every 10,000 starts.
Also from an expert, “However, a recent study has found that electric car fires are more common than previously thought. The study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of California-Irvine, found that electric car fires are responsible for approximately one-third of all car fires in the United States. This is significant because electric cars make up a relatively small percentage of the overall vehicle market.”
Irrespective of the data you believe, high intensity fire remains a legitimate concern with battery electric vehicles (BEVs). In virtually every case of a BEV fire, the entire vehicle is destroyed, and high quantities of toxic fumes are released into the atmosphere. Further, lithium-ion battery fires present a threat to first responders who may inhale toxic fumes, suffer burns when a fire reignites. And, there is a risk of electrocution from faulty or damaged wiring.
Another point to consider- as previously noted, vehicles with internal combustion engines rarely catch fire when parked and unattended. Most fires involving conventional vehicles are a consequence of an electrical short or ruptured fuel tank resulting from an accident. Conversely, many BEV fires have erupted while a vehicle was parked and unoccupied, or parked and being charged.
The foregoing paragraphs are not intended as a condemnation of Battery Electric Vehicles but as a source of rarely disclosed information. Current and future owners of BEVs need to be aware of the unique aspects of BEV fires and the ferocity at which they burn.
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