Experts warn firefighters need to be better prepared as electric vehicle fires become more common

ATLANTA — It takes truck loads more water and hours more time for firefighters to put out an electric vehicle fire than a fire in a traditional vehicle.

Only about 1% of vehicles in Fulton County are electric right now. The rest of metro Atlanta is even lower. But that number is expected to skyrocket with major automakers Ford, GM and Mercedes pledging to have 50% of their products electric by 2030 and eliminate all gas-powered vehicles by 2035.

Every year in the U.S., between 150,000-200,000 vehicles catch fire. But an electric vehicle that caught fire on a California highway started burning again at the tow yard 5 days later.

Another EV caught fire on a tow truck, after firefighters thought the fire was safely extinguished.

Two people died when a Tesla crashed and caught fire just outside of Houston in April.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray traveled to Woodlands, Texas to learn more about the special challenges that these EV fires bring.

Woodlands Fire Chief Palmer Buck says each time his firefighters thought the fire was out it started up again.

“Since we’ve had cars, it’s pretty simple. But now we have a lot more things to think about,” Buck said.

Woodlands firefighters were on their cell phones searching for Tesla data as they fought the fire.

They learned what they needed first and foremost was plenty of water.

“We carry 500 to 1000 gallons of water on all of our fire engines. And usually that’s plenty enough water to extinguish your typical internal combustion car fire,” Buck said.

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But where a normal car fire takes about 500 gallons of water, essentially 1 truckload, this fire took 28,000 gallons. That’s the equivalent of 56 fire trucks.

In this case, there was a hydrant nearby. But without that, firefighters would have had to shuttle in water.

“As it ended up, we were there for four hours putting water on the car and we continue to have what’s called thermal runaway with the battery packs,” Buck said.

Thermal runaway is what happens when different battery cells under the car keep igniting.

That’s a basic difference too. Water needs to get underneath the car where the battery cells are located.

Firefighters in the Netherlands even tried using a crane to dunk a BMW hybrid in a pool of water to stop the thermal runaway and put out the fire.

Jason Levine from the Center for Auto Safety says right now EV fires are just a fraction of fires, because they are just a fraction of cars on the road.

“They’re undoubtedly going to happen, we need to figure out how to put them out,” Levine said.

Out of more than 10 million vehicles registered in Georgia, just 31,000 are electric. But that’s going to change rapidly over the next decade. And fire departments must be ready.

“This is a problem that is solvable, we just need to make sure we’re getting people the right information,” Levine said.

In DeKalb County, they have not seen an EV fire yet, but tell us they have been training for it.

“We know that there’s going to be a lot more on the road, we try to do more training, and try to stay up to date on the way these cars are built,” said DeKalb County Fire Department’s Tony Pardinas.

Fire departments say the big concern going forward is a potential strain on resources. Fires that take 30 minutes to put out now take 4 hours, and require more people.

“Everybody’s looking towards the future as we get more and more cars on the road that are like this and what we need to do to be more efficient,” Buck said.

That is why federal regulators at the National Transportation Safety Board are taking this very seriously. NTSB sent their own investigators to the Woodlands crash.

And earlier this year, NTSB issued new recommendations for how to fight these fires.

Right now, the best thing is large amounts of water. But Chief Buck is hoping a foam or other compound can be developed that is more efficient than having to pour 20,000 gallons of water on a car fire.

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