It's summer time and we are likely to hear about more car fires or encounter one on the side of the road.  It would be pretty frightening to experience a car fire but the situation is more more significant when the fire occurs in an EV.

Vehicle fires involving lithium-ion (LI) batteries present a series of challenges to extinguish including extreme temperatures, significant amounts of water to extinguish  and specialized training for firefighters.

They can also off-gas dangerous vapors to endanger occupants of a crashed vehicle.

I asked Wenatchee Valley Fire Department (WVFD) what training the agency has incorporated to prepare for fighting fires in EV's.  So far, WVFD has responded to small LI fires, but no EV fires yet, according to Deputy Chief of Operations,  Andy Davidson.

To prepare for the inevitable, WVFD underwent in depth training in 2023 on the specific hazards of lithium-ion battery fires. Th training focused on fire suppression techniques. WVFD has ongoing training with LINK Transit which operates an electric fleet and periodic training on specific vehicle makes. The State Fire Marshal is providing periodic updates on lithium ion and EV fires.

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Davidson says firefighters responding to a lithium-ion battery fire, the kind of battery that powers most EV's are trained to deal with a fire that is extremely difficult to extinguish.  In addition, first responders are trained on the following scenarios involving Lithium-ion fires;

  1. LI batteries are subject to thermal runaway which means they burn extremely fast under certain conditions.   So fast, it looks like an explosion, although it is rapid combustion.
  2. LI batteries contain fuel and oxidizers that contribute to the rapid rate of combustion.
  3. Large battery packs are segmented so must one must be extinguished separately within the battery. This can be extremely challenging dependent on the specific battery.
  4. Depending on the scenario,  there is an increased risk of electrocution to responders when fighting LI/EV battery fires.
  5. Reignition is possible with LI/EV fires. Resources must be on scene much longer than other types of vehicle fires to observe and ensure the fire is completely.
  6. LI fires can even burn while completely submerged in water.
  7. LI batteries can release toxic gasses prior to thermal runaway. This has been detected in passenger compartments of crashed vehicles and can affect passengers. LI can also react vigorously upon contact with water.

LI battery fires involving EV's burn so hot, they also require large volumes of water

Davidson says every situation is different but EV fires can take significantly longer to extinguish and require far more volume of water than other kinds of fires.

Fire engines do not typically carry enough water to extinguish advanced EV fires so a hydrant or water tender will likely be necessary. Since there has never been an EV fire response by the WVFD, Davidson said he has heard reports show that many EV fires required thousands of gallons of water put out.  That is far more than is necessary to extinguish the typical car fire.

Davidson points out all that extra water presents a potential pollution concern from EV fires. Some departments have turned to alternatives options like submerging or burying EVs until they are extinguished.

A car fire on the side of the road is one thing but what if the extra dangerous EV battery fire starts while the vehicle is parked in a garage or structure.  That's an extra hurdle for firefighters because their access is limited and the burning EV battery increases danger of the fire into the building and danger to personnel working near a high intensity fire.

Finally, the International Association of Fire Chief's have precautions for everyone involved AFTER an EV fire is extinguished.

It could reignite!  The IAFC recommends an engine company escort the tow company of the danger and possibly escort the EV back to the recovery yard.   Tow operators should provide 50’ clear space around the vehicle once stored and never inside a building.

Batteries should always be treated as energized and pose an ongoing risk to the fire investigator. IAFC says thermal events with the battery system could continue for some time after the initial incident.

  

 

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