Why electric vehicle fires are a real pain point for Arizona firefighters

There’s no single tool that is standard for all firefighters to use while battling EV fires, but there is new technology that could help.
Updated: Oct. 19, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - When a Tesla crashed and burst into flames in Scottsdale, it reignited on the tow truck. On a California highway, it took firefighters three hours and 6,000 gallons of water to stop an Electric Vehicle (EV) from burning. “Electric vehicle fires have become really a pain for us,” said Dave Folio of the Scottsdale Fire Department.

EV fires are dangerous, costly, and full of unknowns. “We’re still figuring out ways to deal with them; Everything from putting them in a dumpster and loading sand on top of them and possibly even burying them in some cases,” Folio said. “Right now, we’re all scrambling to come up with a better way.”

There’s no single tool that is standard for all firefighters to use while battling EV fires, but there is new technology that could help.

Witnesses at the scene told Arizona’s Family that it appeared the driver had hit the gas pedal instead of the brakes.

In Tempe, firefighters from more than a dozen departments watched a demonstration of some of those tools, including the Turtle Fire System. Buddy Hayes, a fire captain in New Jersey, created it. “The problem with electric vehicles is trying to cool the battery pack,” Hayes said. Vehicle manufacturers recommend doing that with a lot of water, but EV batteries are hard to get to, so the Turtle device slides right under the car and sprays water up toward the battery. “We flow over 500 gallons a minute,” Hayes said. “Right now, we’ve sold to quite a few departments. All the major airports in my area, New Jersey, have purchased. Some major departments in New York, Chicago, and Boston.”

Firefighters are also testing thermal blankets, which are big enough to cover entire vehicles. “When you look at the blanket, you think, ‘Oh, it put the fire out,’” said Bricen Miller of Li-Fire. “It actually can’t. It’s impossible to stop a lithium-ion battery fire, so the blanket does a great job of isolating and eliminating exposure.”

Several battery-powered semi-trucks caught fire Friday morning at the Nikola Motor Co. facility in Phoenix. The company said it suspects foul play.

On Your Side surveyed several fire departments around the state. The city of Goodyear said it has similar blankets on two battalion vehicles. In Gilbert, the fire department sends chief officers and hazmat units in the initial dispatch for all EV fires. “Gilbert Fire & Rescue and its regional partners are in the process of assessing all potential hazards related to lithium-ion batteries to strengthen internal training programs, develop additional hazard mitigation strategies, and create regulatory standards and educational programs for the community,” a town spokesperson said.

Several departments in the Valley have adopted the Phoenix’s standard operating procedures, which note, “Once life safety has been addressed, fire companies should determine if they should suppress the fire or simply allow the vehicle to burn.” In Flagstaff, there is no policy in place for EV fires. “We do have some limited experience with these incidents, and our special operations team has gone through a recent training opportunity to gain insight for our guideline development,” said Flagstaff Fire Department Deputy Chief Chris Fennell.

A 2020 report by the National Transportation Safety Board highlighted the risk of electric shock and uncontrolled temperature and pressure increases, known as thermal runaway. The report was also critical of manufacturers. “The instructions in most manufacturers’ emergency response guides for fighting high-voltage lithium-ion battery fires lack necessary, vehicle-specific details on suppressing the fires,” the NTSB report said.

A study says energy efficiency decreases the higher the temperature (there's not enough data for over 100°F), but efficiency is worse when it's freezing.

“It’s really taking time for science to catch up and try to find ways to extinguish lithium battery fires safely,” said Michael Brooks, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “With this massive rollout and push from the government for electric vehicles, we should have, but we haven’t had a corresponding push for what happens when things go wrong, and that’s a conversation we really need to have, and we need to have it quick.”

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents manufacturers, declined an interview but said: “Safety is a top priority for our members, which is why they have been engaged in longstanding efforts to address fire risks for both conventionally fueled vehicles and EVs—including by working with consumers, the first responder community and other stakeholders at the local, national and international levels.”

“It’s going to be a very different response for someone in a rural setting where they can just let that car burn because ultimately that’s the best way to get rid of the problem because it consumes all the fuel,” Miller said. “If you’re downtown in Phoenix, that’s not going to work out for you to let the car burn or if you’re in a parking garage.”

The concerns seem daunting, but they may be temporary. “I think this is going to be about a ten to fifteen-year problem,” Miller said. “Battery technology is evolving really quickly. I think within ten years, you’ll have solid-state batteries which can’t catch on fire because of the chemistry.

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