Recently, an electric vehicle’s battery pack caught fire after a fatal traffic crash in California. Engineers removed some of the power cells and the vehicle was towed. The car’s lithium-ion battery reignited three times over the next six days.
Gasoline fires require an ignition source, but lithium systems contain their own ignition system. What’s more, once one battery catches fire it can produce a chain reaction, catching all other batteries it is connected to. As in the incident above, the fire can reignite repeatedly over days or weeks.
Firefighters must use different tactics for electric vehicle fires than they do for gasoline-fueled vehicles. Tactics normally used for gasoline fires may make the situation worse. The vehicle must also be stored differently after the accident as a safeguard.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) offers “Alternative Fuel Vehicles Safety Training” for the fire service, EMS, fire investigations, crash reconstruction, and tow and salvage communities. The self-paced, 4-hour training is free; students will receive a certificate upon completion.
NFPA also offers many other resources including Emergency Response Guides from 30 alternative fuel vehicle manufacturers, free to download. At a minimum, be sure to watch the short video, “Stranded Energy — How Little You Know Might Shock You.” It covers the basic but most important steps to take when encountering hybrid and electric cars involved in a traffic crash.
The good news is these fires are very rare. National safety agencies are investigating several recent electric vehicle fires, but have said they don't believe electric cars are more susceptible to fires than other cars.