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Electric vehicle fires pose significant challenge to firefighters as Colorado pushes for 940,000 EVs by 2030

Electric vehicle fires pose significant challenge to firefighters as Colorado pushes for 940,000 by
Electric vehicle fires pose significant challenge to firefighters as Colorado pushes for 940,000 by 06:33

Electric vehicle purchases in Colorado are soaring, with EV registrations in 2022 up by 822% since 2016. But some firefighters say they're going to need a lot more resources if these vehicles keep coming at that rate, because they still don't know the best ways to extinguish the flames if an electric vehicle catches fire. 

Firefighters have had more than 100 years to perfect the art of putting out a fire involving a vehicle with a gas motor engine. But those traditional tactics don't work on electric vehicles because they use lithium ion batteries to run instead of gas. Lithium ion battery fires are more tricky to put out, sometimes reigniting several hours, days or even a week later. 

Erie Police

An explosion that happened inside a garage of a home in Erie back in April is bringing the concerns to the forefront for firefighters with Mountain View Fire Rescue. The explosion blew off a firefighter's helmet, and knocked back firefighters inside. 

It happened after the homeowners called 911 when they saw smoke coming from their electric Jeep that was charging in the garage. 

Firefighters went inside to check it out, and accidentally caused the explosion when they sprayed water on the smoke.

"Once they got into the garage, they had a smoke filled garage. They couldn't even see the stairs going into the garage, and once they opened the door and sprayed water, that's when they created an explosion," said Doug Saba, deputy fire marshal for Mountain View Fire Rescue. "The problem with this was a buildup of combustible gases inside the garage, and it started coming into the house, and that happens a lot with batteries, lithium ion batteries that fail, and they fail because there's a either manufacturer defect or something damages those batteries causing that. It could be an electrical short."

Saba says the fire is still under investigation, and they've sent the Jeep back to the manufacturer to be examined.

Erie Police

He says the cause of the vehicle to smoke is still being determined. 

Fortunately, no one was injured.

Stellantis, the company that owns Jeep, issued the following written statement to CBS News Colorado:

"Stellantis prioritizes the safety and well-being of our customers and routinely reports relevant data to regulators and other servants of the public interest. We also provide the first-responder community with detailed information about handling our portfolio of electrified products. Stellantis vehicles are designed and built to meet or exceed all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards."

While electric vehicle fires are much less common than regular motor vehicle fires, they can be more dangerous because there is less knowledge about how to put them out.

"It's talking to our operations, and getting better tactics for our firefighters, and we don't have those good answers yet," Saba said.

CBS News found right now, there's a patchwork of standards nationwide for best practices to extinguish these fires, and there isn't sufficient training for fire departments.

"There's a lot of things being tried, but nothing solid," Saba said. "We have fire agencies that are using tarps to cover cars to help try and smother them, but it's not very effective. They're trying water, but you need to have copious amounts of water, 20,000 gallons. Even then, once you put it out, it can rekindle and restart 24, 72 hours or a week later. Our tactics as firefighters right now is get the the vehicle out of the house, get it out of our neighborhood and we will investigate it in an open field."

Fire investigators also have to send these vehicles back to the manufacturer during an investigation, but some critics say there should be more oversight of auto companies investigating themselves. 

Industry experts tell CBS News Colorado there is some government oversight of that process, but that more could be coming as these batteries become more widely studied and used. 

Despite the lack of knowledge around these batteries and fighting these fires, Colorado is one of the states leading the charge in the transition to electric vehicles, to help reduce harmful gas emissions.

Gov. Jared Polis wants 940,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030. 

Last year, more than 83,000 were registered, an increase of 822% since 2016. 

"So this electric freight train is headed our way, and we need to adjust to our fire tactics," Saba said. 

So what is the state doing to ensure firefighters are properly prepared?

Nowhere in the state's 2023 Electric Vehicle Plan does it mention fires or emergency response. 

Gov. Polis declined an interview with CBS News Colorado, but his climate office says the state's department of transportation has held some training sessions for fire departments over the last year, and has been handing out grant money to support more research and training statewide. 

His climate office issued the following written statement:

"The health and safety of Coloradans is always a top concern. The Polis administration has worked in partnership with the legislature to create rules and regulations that ensure the safe deployment of clean energy technologies. The reality is, electric vehicle fires are rare, with 25 reported per 100,000 vehicles, compared to 1,530 reported per 100,000 traditional gas-powered vehicles. Still, as electric vehicle technology advances, manufacturers are aware of the risk of fire from EV batteries and have been taking steps to reduce the risk of fire from batteries and improve emergency response guidance for when battery fires occur. As the market drives the transition toward EVs, we will support safety standards to ensure that the clean energy future not only reduces emissions and improves air quality, but also prioritizes the safety and well-being of all Coloradans.

"It's important to add that Colorado has been a leader in making EV and alternative fuel incident management training available to first responders and department of transportation staff. In February 2023, CDOT partnered with General Motors to host four half-day Battery Electric Vehicles for First Responders Training sessions to more than 200 attendees from fire departments, police departments, EMT units, and towing companies from around the state. Some attendees traveled from as far away as Montana and Kansas to get access to this training. In addition, CDOT has procured online alternative fuel and EV safety training modules from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for its own staff and is looking to expand the availability of such training to more CDOT personnel in the future. Most recently, the CDOT Office of Innovative Mobility Grant Program was established and includes eligibility to fund safety and incident management training related to EVs statewide.

"Moving forward, we will continue to seek out new training opportunities and tools as they develop in the future and the market continues to evolve." 

Drive Clean Colorado, a clean cities coalition that works with the state's department of transportation to deliver clean transportation programs, is one of the grant recipients from the CDOT Office of Innovative Mobility Grant Program. 

"All of these are big issues that we need to acknowledge, and we want our fire departments to be safe," says Bonnie Trowbridge, executive director of Drive Clean Colorado. 

Trowbridge says the money will help train auto shop technicians about EV safety and will pay for about five fire departments to be trained.

"So, there's just a lot more work that needs to be done, a lot more funding that is needs to be available," Trowbridge said. "There's a lot of changes that are happening in the electric vehicle space right now. There are new battery technologies. There are new vehicle styles. There are new drive trains. So, as that continues to evolve, we're going to need to continue to keep an eye on this."

State Rep. Alex Valdez (D-Denver) supported electric vehicle legislation this year, but he says he was unaware of the lack of EV fire fighting standards and training. 

"I will touch base with the firefighters and see if there is anything that we can be doing, because we do want to protect those folks," Valdez said. "We owe them the best training that they can get, and we will be laser focused on ensuring that we do everything we can to to enable them to have that training and to be able to do their jobs safely and in a way that is adapted to the future that is electric."

Meanwhile, back in Erie, Saba agrees that more state assistance could be helpful for firefighters. 

"The state can help out with better recycling centers for these lithium ion batteries or any type of batteries," Saba said. "I think in the production places for batteries, as well. Some states are gearing up and putting two and three different manufacturers of lithium ion battery buildings in their cities because they're planning for the changes that have been mandated by each state. Everything will go to electric. So I think we need to work with the state, and find out better firefighting tactics for those buildings, for the changes that are coming."

The federal government awarded a grant to the Fire Protection Research Foundation for $1.18 million last year to fund a comprehensive study to determine the best ways to fight EV fires, but that study won't be complete until September 2024 — more than a year from now. 

In the meantime, Saba asks folks at home to also do their part to help prevent these fires by keeping a close eye on their electric vehicles and other devices with lithium ion batteries.

"When they're charging them, it's making sure you're close by and somewhere that's not by something flammable," Saba said. "If it has dropped, and you feel that there may be damage to it, you need to replace it and you need to take it to a recycling center that will take it. Don't put a damaged battery and just put it in your trash can. It should be disposed of properly in a hazardous material place or a recycling center."

Drive Clean Colorado also offers some advice on its website:

"To reduce the risk of fires in malfunctioning electric models, it is important to follow the recommendations of the manufacturer, including maintaining a charge between 20–80% and avoiding leaving the car charging unattended overnight. 

"The most important thing to remember is that these are early days for developing EV battery technology and safety. As more research is completed and more data becomes available, these vehicles will become even safer."

Saba says if your EV starts to smoke or catch fire, get away from it as quickly as possible, and call 911. 

"With these batteries, it could be 30 seconds or less with smoke coming off of it, and then it goes into the next quadrant," Saba said. "Recently in Colorado here, we had an investigation, a couple of investigators in south Adams, that we were looking at an explosion of a lithium battery, and they went back the next day to follow up on an investigation, and it literally blew up in their hands. So they were OK. They weren't injured, but it sure made them sit back and go, okay, we've got to change our tactics." 

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