‘It will go from cell to cell’: EV fires challenge local fire departs with stubborn blazes

BROCKTON, Mass. — Electric vehicles (EVs) are packed with clean power, making them an attractive option for drivers looking to go green.

But when an EV catches fire, it presents unique challenges for firefighters. The culprit lies within the vehicle’s lithium-ion batteries. When the batteries are damaged or disturbed, it causes a reaction called thermal runaway which eventually leads to a fire.

But unlike a fire in a gas vehicle, EV fires can reignite long after the flames are out due to the energy contained in the batteries. As Brockton Fire Chief Brian Nardelli explained, “When that fire starts, if we don’t get it cooled, it will propagate and it will go from cell to cell.”

The Brockton Fire Department responded to an EV fire on Belmont Street back in May. A first for that city, but hardly the first EV fire in the state.

Another EV fire happened recently in Wareham, with another happening on Route 128 in Wakefield over the winter. That fire took hours — and 20,000 gallons of water — to extinguish.

In Arizona, one EV fire was so stubborn, that a crane was brought in to lift the car into a dumpster where it needed to be covered in sand.

“It presents a lot of unique challenges,” says Milosh Puchovsky,  associate department head of the Fire Protection Engineering program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

He explains, “An electric vehicle fire on the road presents one set of challenges. But now you take that electric vehicle and if have a fire in a structure, like a garage where the vehicle is charging, [it] presents other, more involved challenges.”

He continued, “Fire can spread from that vehicle to other parts of the building. It becomes a problem in roadway tunnels.”

Thankfully, EV fires are rare. According to a 2023 study by AutoinsuranceEZ, 25 out of every 100,000 EVs purchased catch fire. That’s compared to almost 1,500 fires out of every 100,000 gas vehicles and roughly 3,500 fires in every 100,000 hybrid vehicles.

Nardelli agrees, “These vehicles are safe. We don’t want to scare people by any means. But when they do have something happen to them, it is a different world for us.”

Over the past year, the Brockton Fire Department has acquired new equipment and developed new strategies to handle these fires. They gave Boston 25 News an inside look at their process.

When the crew arrives at an EV fire, they first extinguish the flames with a regular hose. Then a different nozzle is brought in, which is designed to slide under the vehicle and soak the battery compartment. An emergency plug is placed in the charging port to disable the vehicle, and then a fireproof blanket covers the vehicle. It remains there even after the vehicle is towed from the scene.

Before towing can happen, the fire crew waits. “These can reignite hours to days later, so we wait about 45 minutes with a piece of fire apparatus,” explains Brockton Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Galligan. And the fire itself is only one of the hazards. Lithium-ion battery fires release noxious gases, and the water used to fight these fires is released back into the environment. It’s an impact to consider, whether it’s in the middle of the city or in your own garage.

We asked the Alliance for Automotive Innovation about these concerns. In a statement, they told us “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 [and] the first responder community.”

First responders are working together to address these fire risks too. In October, fire chiefs from 100 departments attended a lithium-ion battery symposium hosted by State Fire Marshal John Davin at the State Fire Academy.

The group discussed firefighting strategies, the purchasing of equipment to fight these fires, and how to dispose of the batteries.

The Brockton Fire Department tells us in addition to the EVs, the lithium-ion batteries found in electronic devices and electric scooters also pose a problem. Any fire starting in those devices can also spread to the building they’re in.

Back at WPI, Puchovksy says EVs should be part of our transportation future. But, with one caveat: “I say it’s a good thing. You’re going to be green. But I would be cautious.”

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