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When a Tesla S crashed into a tree in Florida last year and caught on fire, police who came to the scene tried to put it out with a fire extinguisher.

When firefighters arrived, they used water to douse the fatal blaze. The car was taken to an impound lot where it reignited at least three times over the next 24 hours.

“Any time a lithium-ion battery is damaged, there’s a potential for fire to occur,” says Shayne Mintz, Canadian regional director with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). “When they do ignite, they require a tonne of water because of the potential to generate heat – in some cases, you have to use 10 to 40 times the amount of water than you would in a [gasoline-powered] vehicle fire.”

A U.S. National Transportation Safety Board survey of 32 fire departments – out of more than 29,000 fire departments in the U.S. – found that half didn’t have protocols in place to fight electric vehicle (EV) fires.

A similar survey hasn’t been done in Canada, but fire departments in Vancouver and Montreal say they train firefighters how to handle EV fires. Toronto says it’s rolling out training in 2021.

“With any kind of car fire, we’re not saving anything – [insurance] doesn’t repair it,” says Capt. Jonathan Gormick with Vancouver Fire Rescue Services. “Our goals are to just protect anything around it and make sure it burns itself out.”

Fire departments across Canada have access to free online NFPA training that covers alternative-fuel vehicles including EVs, hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, says the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners.

The NFPA didn’t immediately have stats available on how many Canadians have taken the training.

Special considerations

Water is the only thing that works to put out an EV battery fire “unless you wanted to take a dump truck of graphite” to smother it, Mintz says.

“They might let it burn out if they run out of water,” Mintz says. “But it can take a long time.”

Firefighters need to know that EVs take a lot of water to put out – Tesla says about 11,300 litres of water applied directly to the battery – and that they have to be watched for hours to make sure they don’t catch on fire again, Mintz says.

In the Netherlands, firefighters have brought shipping containers to EV crashes where the battery has been damaged. They fill the box with water and drop the car into it with a crane.

There are other EV dangers. Rescue crews also have to know how to cut safely into EVs without hitting a high voltage wire, Gormick says.

While EVs normally don’t have wires in points where a rescue crew would be cutting, fire crews have computer terminals on every rig where they can look up specific requirements for specific EV models.

EV fires still rare?

While there are more than 100,000 EVs on Canadian roads, fires seem to be relatively rare.

But, since there’s no national database on fires and most provinces don’t track whether vehicle fires involve EVs, it’s not clear how many EV fires there have been.

Vancouver Fire says there’s never been an EV fire there, even though it gets about 50 vehicle fire a year. Toronto doesn’t track EV fires specifically. Montreal Fire says two out of 545 vehicle fires between August 2018 and August 2019 involved EVs.

Gasoline-powered vehicles catch on fire, too. In the U.S., there were 212,500 vehicle fires in 2018.

The majority of EV battery fires have been caused by a crash that damages the battery, Mintz says.

But there have been EV fires caused by defects.

Last month, Hyundai recalled 11,000 2019 and 2020 Kona Electric vehicles in the U.S. and Canada, due to a problem that could cause the battery to short-circuit and potentially start a fire.

In Montreal in 2019, a garage caught fire while a Kona was parked inside.

Since 2010, Transport Canada says it has received 10 defect complaints involving a fire in an electric vehicle.

“Over the same time period there were 787 documented fire incidents across all other powertrain types,” a Transport Canada spokesperson said in an e-mail.

Since 2010, have been 11 recalls for a potential fire risk in EVs, including motorcycles and golf carts.

Over the same period, there were thousands of recalls for fire risks in gas-powered vehicles.

“I don’t think a driver should have any more concern in an electric vehicle than in a [gasoline-powered] vehicle,” NFPA’s Mintz said. “There’s been a lot of engineering put into these automobiles for these particular issues – I think they’re as safe as any car out there”

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