PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In June 2022, a Tesla that had been in a crash was being stored at an Exeter auction house for used cars when it started to burn.
It was a Saturday and with no one at the business, Copart, the burning car went unnoticed until a motorist saw smoke will driving nearby. By the time firefighters got there 23 vehicles were ablaze.
A Target 12 town-by-town survey of fire departments and the state’s top fire official found the Tesla blaze at Copart was the only electric-vehicle fire firefighters have dealt with in Rhode Island to date.
And the National Transportation Safety Board estimates vehicles powered primarily with a battery are 60% less likely to catch fire than a traditional internal combustible engine. But fire departments statewide are studying and preparing for how to handle these fires, which can trickier to put out than conventional car fires.
“They’re usually prolonged events,” said Dan Rinaldi, a Providence firefighter who trains others in his field. “[Electric vehicles] are very safe, but when they have an issue, they can definitely have a bad issue.”
Why do EVs catch fire?
Electric and hybrid vehicles are most commonly powered by large lithium-ion batteries. The primary reason for a battery to overheat or ignite is because it experienced some sort of trauma, such as a car crash.
Central Falls Battalion Chief Christopher Gray teaches a clinic on lithium-ion battery fires and said damaged batteries can overheat and go into “thermal runaway,” bursting into flames and even exploding.
“In the lithium-ion battery there is a whole bunch of these cells that make up the battery packs,” Gray said. “In that cell there is a thin plastic divider. If that divider itself fails, then those two components will mix together and go into thermal runaway.”
Often the first sign of a battery going into thermal runaway is the sound it makes, according to Rinaldi.
“You’re going to hear hissing, popping,” he said. “It’s going to be like a jet engine, it’s not going to be like a regular car fire.”
Rinaldi said lithium-ion batteries can also malfunction because of excessive heat or improper charging.
“The probability is low but the reason why they make national news is they’re usually prolonged events,” Rinaldi said. “It usually turns into a big ordeal — a lot of water flowing.”
A regular vehicle fire can be extinguished with less than one thousand gallons of water. But fire experts said it takes tens of thousands of gallons to address an EV or hybrid fire. And even then that may only cool the battery pack, not extinguish it.
Providence Fire Captain Chris Lannan said the department is talking to city tow yards and urging them to store electric and hybrid vehicles — especially if they have been in an accident — away from other vehicles to avoid a chain reaction like what happened in Exeter.
“Some of these vehicles are extinguished — that are on the top of the flatbed — they will reignite either in route to the autobody shop or sometimes long after somebody left the autobody shop,” Lannan said.
Thanks to federal and state incentives, electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid purchases in Rhode Island have been on the rise. According to data from the R.I. Department of Motor Vehicles, there have been 16,222 new vehicle registrations for EVs and hybrids since January 2021.
The biggest month in that time period was January 2023, with 863 new registrations.
‘Let them burn’
Gray said new information about how to deal with EV fires is still being developed nationwide.
“This is all brand new,” he said. “We are really just scratching the surface.”
Among the top priorities for firefighters is to get an electric vehicle away from anything else that could ignite, including other EVs.
“What do you have next to an electric vehicle most of the time?” Rinaldi said. “Another electric vehicle, and another electric vehicle, because they’re all charging next to each other.”
He said firefighters should unplug the car from a charging station if possible. Then there are generally two options to deal with an EV or hybrid battery that is ablaze: an enormous amount of water or doing nothing.
“A lot of times you have to let them burn,” said State Fire Marshal Tim McLaughlin. “You just have to let them burn out completely, but hopefully you get it away from anything that’s combustible.”
Getting water to the battery to cool it down is key, which can be difficult with EVs because the power source is often located underneath the car, not in the front where a traditional car engine would be.
Images from the Sacramento Fire Department in California show firefighters used a jack to tilt up a Tesla that was on fire on a highway so they could apply a continuous stream of water on the battery underneath the car.
But in congested areas, like in Providence, the options are far more limited. Rinaldi said a “nightmare” scenario is an electric vehicle on fire in a parking garage.
“These other buildings downtown that are fully occupied with underground parking garages,” Rinaldi said. “Now you’re actually potentially putting a car underneath a high-rise building and now it’s on fire in full thermal runaway.”
He said the department is exploring the possibility of purchasing fire blankets — like this one by the company Bridgehall — that would go over and around a car on fire to contain the flames. But unlike a traditional vehicle where the blanket might extinguish the fire completely by cutting off the air supply, lithium-ion fires generate their own oxygen.
“They’re an oxidizer, they can produce it,” said Gray.
Rinaldi said the blanket might be of use in situations where they need to move the car out of a dangerous environment.
“If we have it in an underground parking garage in one of the buildings in downtown Providence then maybe we want to put a blanket over these,” Rinaldi said. “Can we at least buy ourselves some time and figure out okay, we didn’t put out the fire, we are not going to put out this fire, but we can maybe get this vehicle out of here and to a safe location.”
Even then, Rinaldi said he has concerns about using water to cool off the batteries because of the chemicals that can flow from the runoff.
“Do we really want to start throwing water on things and potentially contaminate drinking water or do we just want to let this car burn out as long as there’s no exposures and it’s just doing its thing,” he said.
McLaughlin acknowledged his office has not yet put together a training memo with how to deal with EV fires because, “there’s still a lot of unanswered questions.”
Lannan said multiple stakeholders need to come to the table to develop an emergency-action plan for the inevitable.
“It’s the tow companies, state police, DEM — everybody that’s going to be a player in this event — should be sitting down saying, ‘OK, well, what are we going to do now?'” Lannan said. “When this happens, and it’s going to happen, it’s a matter of when. So, when it does, what’s our plan going to be?”
Of greater concern to every fire professional interviewed by Target 12 are smaller lithium-ion batteries that power electric-mobility devices like e-bikes and scooters.
A fire on Stephen Hopkins Court in Providence last November was sparked by an e-bike and destroyed multiple apartments.
A fire investigation report concluded one of three bikes — all next to each other in the living room of the apartment — started smoking then caught fire. The resident told firefighters after she ran to get a fire extinguisher and heard “a loud explosion.”
No one was injured in that fire, but that has not been in the case in other parts of the country. New York City experienced more than 200 fires in 2022 sparked by electric mobility devices, resulting in six deaths.
The problem prompted Congressman Ritchie Torres, D-New York, to propose a bill putting tighter regulations on e-bikes, requiring the Consumer Product Safety Commission to set mandatory standards for the design and manufacturing of electric-mobility devices.
One of the biggest risks of e-bikes and scooter fires is using after-market replacement batteries or chargers.
“Whatever you buy, use what comes with it,” McLaughlin said. “Stick with the manufacturer’s recommendations on anything that you buy that has a lithium battery in it.”
Lannan said if you do need to purchase replacement parts, make sure they come with the “UL Listed” certification. He also urged people not to charge the devices unattended or overnight, to keep them away from a heat source — including from direct sunlight — and to avoid putting e-bike or scooter in front of an egress, blocking a door or a window.
Both Lannan and Rinaldi said they are concerned about the rental scooters and e-bikes strewn around the city. People can sign up with the company and charge them at home, earning money. Lannan said they have seen trucks picking up multiple e-bikes to bring back somewhere and charge.
And the devices aren’t always treated kindly.
“With the scooters when they’re out there, they’re jumping off of curbs, they’re dropping them, they’re doing every bad thing you could possibly do to a battery,” said Rinaldi.
For McLaughlin — the state’s top fire official — his advice is clear: “don’t put them in your house.”
“I guess they’re expensive so people don’t want to leave them out,” McLaughlin said. “But it can be a lot more expensive when you’re watching your house burn down than an e-bike.”