The fire was extinguished and continued again. Even after turning the car on its side and directing the water directly at the batteries. “We did not expect to face so many challenges” to control the flames, said Parker Wilbourn, captain of firefighters in the California metropolitan area.
With more and more hybrids and electrical components in circulation, “we are entering a new era of fires, we need to adapt and find solutions,” he believes.
Because “every second counts” during an incident, General Motors (GM) announced Thursday that it is expanding its first-aid training program to interventions on electric vehicles in the United States and Canada. The group is currently marketing four models in this category and aims to offer 30 by 2025.
The goal is to provide technical information about batteries, to share best practices and to “kill preconceived ideas”, explains a press release: think, for example, of stopping the engine as electric vehicles do not make noise, or combat the idea that you should not pour water on the batteries.
Electric and hybrid cars are still very much in the minority on U.S. roads, but they accounted for nearly 10% of the cars purchased in the U.S. last year, according to Cox Automotive. The US Highway Safety Agency (NHTSA) says it does not have enough data on car fires with electric batteries to draw conclusions.
But the latter are not a priori more frequent or dangerous than petrol cars, assures the National Association of Protection against Fires (NFPA). On the other hand, they require specific procedures, adds the organization, which has been offering specific training since 2010.
It usually takes much more water, between 11,350 liters and 30,300 liters approximately according to a guide prepared by Tesla for first aid attention. Which is not necessarily easy in rural areas where there are no fire hydrants.
It is also common for batteries to re-ignite for several hours or even days after the first event, due to a phenomenon known as “thermal runaway”, which can occur in damaged lithium-ion batteries. Tesla recommends monitoring battery temperatures for at least 24 hours after a fire.
“Firefighters are used to the risks” associated with electricity, notes Michael Gorin of the NFPA. “But not in a car. Manufacturers are required to publish a first aid manual for each model they produce.
In early June, she pointed out that only eight producers out of the 22 affected had fully integrated her recommendations.
Firefighters arrive at accident sites “and do not know what to do,” notes Michael Brooks, legal director of the Center for Motor Vehicle Safety. “How do you evacuate a passenger from a burning electric vehicle? How do you know how fire can spread?”
LG battery recall
Like traditional cars, those equipped with batteries can also catch fire when stationary. GM last summer advised owners of certain electric Chevrolet Bolts not to park them indoors or charge them unattended overnight before initiating a massive recall.
Faults on batteries manufactured by the South Korean group LG can trigger fire outbreaks under certain circumstances. GM eventually had to suspend production of Bolt for several months. NHTSA initiated a specific procedure in April on LG batteries, involved in several recalls of the brands Volkswagen, Chrysler (Stellantis), Hyundai, GM and Mercedes.