Fiery Dawn of a New Era as Electric Vehicle Blaze Challenges Local Firefighting Tactics
By Cynthia Furlong Reynolds, Writer
On January 3, a barking dog and a white wisp of smoke heralded a new era in firefighting challenges for local fire departments.
Alerted by their barking dog, Marvin, Drina, and Byxie Boluyt fled their Loch Alpine home as a white wisp of smoke was fanned into flames that began shooting out of the garage.
In less than ten minutes, a sheriff and a Dexter firetruck arrived, followed by a formidable parade of firetrucks, ambulances, EMTs, and twenty-two firefighters, representing Scio Township, Dexter, Chelsea, Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor Township, and Webster Township (technically the Dexter Area Fire Department). By that time, flames were shooting out of the roof of the 1960s-era brick ranch, the garage was ablaze, and two cars were on fire.
The difference between this call and any other residential fire was the fact that it involved two electric vehicles—a brand new Tesla and a five-year-old plug-in Volvo hybrid. These were the first electric vehicle (EV) fires that local fire departments had faced—and they posed daunting challenges. Before the day was over, the Boluyts’ fire had ushered in a new era in local firefighting services, protocol, and equipment. And it highlights the importance of appropriate charging protocols.
“Fires involving electric vehicles are a new and growing challenge for the fire service,” says Scio Township Fire Chief Andrew Houde. “When they occur, they require a whole new approach to firefighting.”
“Although electric vehicles currently account for a small percentage of vehicle fires—remember, they haven’t been around for more than ten years—they are low-frequency/high-consequence events,” adds Ann Arbor Fire Chief Mike Kennedy.
Both Ann Arbor and Scio Township had two previous brief encounters with battery-related fires, one related to a scooter battery, and one at a local battery company. But the Boluyts’ fire was a real-time challenge. “Fortunately, we have a robust mutual aid arrangement county-wide,” Scio Township Fire Chief Houde says, referring to the first responders. “We work together on major incidents. And this time we learned together.”
Because electric vehicles run on large lithium-ion batteries, EV fires pose additional dangers to first responders: electric shocks, burns from the extremely high temperatures, toxic fumes and runoff, and the possibility that the battery could reignite later, after ostensibly being extinguished.
“This is an emerging technology, and we learn more each day,” Houde says.
According to the experts, an EV’s high-voltage battery is composed of many cells packed tightly together inside a watertight, fire-resistant box. When a single cell fails, it essentially ignites a small explosive that produces a tremendous amount of gas and heat (up to 1,200 degrees F) in tenths of a second. The chemical reaction doesn’t require oxygen from the atmosphere to sustain itself. Heat released from each individual cell acts as a falling domino, causing neighboring cells to fail—and because that happens so quickly, firefighters find it impossible to extinguish the failed cells.
The Tesla was parked in a garage packed with bicycles, skis, a dog sled, tools, a riding lawnmower, and shelves piled high with boxes. Close behind it, but in the driveway, stood the Volvo, which shared the same charger. Both were ablaze when the firefighters arrived.
They hitched the burning Volvo to a pickup truck and dragged it down the street, where it was allowed to burn down to a crumpled metal hulk. Then several firefighters used a water hose hoping to protect themselves while they connected the Tesla to the truck and hauled it from the blazing garage into the driveway. “That process seemed extremely dangerous to me,” Boluyt recalls.
After hours burning, the Tesla melted into an indistinguishable hulk.
“This was our first encounter with a burning electric vehicle—let alone two—and the procedures are very different from fires involving gasoline-powered cars,” Kennedy says. “Thermal runaway in lithium-ion batteries happens very quickly. No amount of water can suppress that kind of fire.”
Meanwhile, other firefighters were pouring water onto the house, saving what they could of the house interior, climbing on the roof to chop holes allowing thick black smoke to pour out of the attic.
Within hours, the garage was a charred cave, the house was devastated, and two electric vehicles were reduced to molten hunks of metal.
Be aware of EV charging—and beware extension cords
Within a week, fire inspectors determined that the Boluyts’ fire was started by the extension cord that linked the cars and the 120-volt plug. “I knew the situation wasn’t optimal, but figured if there was a problem, our circuit breaker would shut off, and I would work on the plug in my retirement,” Boluyt says. “I was wrong.”
He had purchased the Tesla several months ago from the dealer on Jackson Road. The salesperson who answered the phone declined to say whether or not Tesla salespeople address charging protocols with new customers. “The directions are online,” she said.
However, Joseph Sesi of Sesi Volvo, where the Boluyts bought their hybrid SUV five years earlier, notes, “When a customer buys an EV or hybrid Volvo, we give them an overview of how these cars differ from gasoline-powered cars. Our number one rule is to plug the car directly into a 220-volt wall outlet, not a 120-volt—and never, EVER use an extension cord. Vehicles take a lot of juice, so a dedicated plug is optimal.”
He adds that Volvo’s owners’ manual explains how to charge the vehicles safely—“but it’s a complex process, and most people don’t understand that charging isn’t a simple matter. Car manufacturers and dealers need to do a better job of educating their customers.”
Clouds have silver linings. Immediately after hearing about the Boluyts’ fire, Sesi offered the Boluyts a loaner car, to use until the insurance company settles their claim. “You’re our customer, and we don’t want to see misfortune happen to anyone,” Manager Glen Gottfried told them. “You don’t have to feel obligated to buy from us.”
Worried about EV fires in downtown parking garages, Ann Arbor’s Fire Department had already purchased a costly fire blanket ($3,000) and strategized plans for EV firefighting. One strategy calls for covering a burning EV with the fire-retardant blanket and waiting until the fire completely burns down underneath, Kennedy explains.
Six days after the Boluyts’ fire, he submitted a requisition for the township to buy a state-of-the-art water tanker, this one equipped with a hook and winch that can be used to tow burning EVs. Several area towns and townships, including Scio and Chelsea, finalized plans for joint EV fire-fighting training at the Chelsea Proving Grounds. Like Scio,they’re seriously investigating the purchase of fire blankets.
“I’ve had numerous calls from other fire departments, asking how the fire was handled. That’s a good sign. We knew the day would come—and it did.”
Photos courtesy of Scio Township Fire Chief Andrew Houde