ST. GEORGE — Electrical battery fires have been on the rise, igniting an issue that presents problems for first responders, St. George Fire Chief Robert Stoker said.
“Within the last couple of months, there has been a significant increase in fires from electric car batteries and smaller lithium batteries,” Stoker said.
This increase points to an ongoing issue with electric vehicle fires that prompted a national debate about the risk to first responders and those standing by at the scene.
The debate first started around 2011 when a Chevy Volt burst into flames during a test run. The issue rose again around 2017 as electric vehicles became more prevalent on U.S. roadways.
Last April, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into more than 138,000 vehicles with batteries made by LG Energy Solution of South Korea.
The investigation was launched after five major automakers recalled the vehicles due to the batteries malfunctioning, causing fires and stalling.
On Jan. 13, 2021, the safety administration announced in a press release that lithium-ion batteries pose dangers to first responders.
“The risks of electric shock and battery reignition/fire arise from the ‘stranded’ energy that remains in a damaged battery,” the press release said.
New recommendations from state and national safety organizations suggest letting the vehicle keep burning while preventing the fire from spreading to nearby objects and locations.
“There still is a lot of training and research, and there are different recommendations of how to put out an electric vehicle fire,” Stoker said. “According to Tesla, their recommendation is to use large amounts of water with a recommendation of 3,000-8,000 gallons of water applied directly to the battery.”
Tesla representatives and the vehicle safety guide advise that after the fire is out to continue dowsing the battery with water for at least 30 minutes and to monitor it for 24 hours.
“However we have been finding lately we have been using 3,000-6,000 gallons of water to put out an electric vehicle fire,” he said.
This presents a “new issue” for the firefighters as their unit carries 750 gallons of water. And the fire department has to call for assistance from other units.
On Nov. 1, St. George firefighters were dispatched to an electric scooter that was recharging and ignited. The owner of the scooter told the firefighters he sprayed the fire with an extinguisher. However, the fire increased in intensity instead of going out.
“The fire extinguisher is generally used for the incipient or the starting point of the fire,” Stoker said, adding that most fire extinguishers use a dry chemical to take the oxygen out of the fire, but it does not cool the fire.
He said the problem they are finding is that electric lithium-ion batteries run extremely hot, which means that when the chemical dissipates, oxygen returns and the fire might reignite.
Tesla also recommends not to use any “foam” or “submerge” the vehicle.
Besides the Nov. 1 fire incident, another fire on Oct. 13 in an over-55 community at Dixie Downs Road involved an electric bike that was charging. The battery overheated, causing a fire.
Stoker said many small battery fires could have been prevented by taking precautionary steps.
For small batteries, which are in such items as e-bikes, scooters and remote control cars, he said never to leave them unattended. Charge them in places like the garage or outside, away from anything flammable, such as carpet, which has been a problem in recently reported fires, where batteries or items were left charging on the carpet.
The charging area also should be in a well-ventilated area away from combustibles, he said.
If the item on fire is plugged into the wall, it is best to turn off the breaker for the outlet and then use water on the fire.
“If there are any questions, it’s best to get out of the house and call 911,” Stoker said.
As for electric vehicle fires, Stoker said everyone should exit the vehicle and establish plenty of distance away as other features in the vehicle, like airbags, can explode.
“Do not go back for anything, like a cell phone,” he added.
Once away from the vehicle and safe from oncoming traffic, call 911.
“What helps us is if they tell us what type of fire, like if it is an electric vehicle on fire,” he said. “Then we can get the assistance and resources we need.”
All electrical and hybrid cars come with manuals with designated sections of guidelines for fires. Stoker said operators should review these guidelines, as electrical batteries present a new issue with varying recommendations.
“It’s not a normal fire,” he said.
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