Hawaii Island firefighters prepare for difficult-to-douse battery fires as EV popularity surges

Electric vehicles are growing in popularity on our roads and firefighters on Hawaii Island are preparing should the battery on one ignite.
Published: Mar. 16, 2023 at 5:49 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 16, 2023 at 6:55 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNwsNow) - Electric vehicles are growing in popularity on our roads ― and firefighters on Hawaii Island are preparing should the battery on one ignite.

Once an EV catches fire, it is difficult to put out.

Videos on YouTube from various fire departments show the hours-long efforts as first responders pour thousands of gallons of water on burning cars.

Hawaii Island firefighters participated in a course earlier this year to learn more about the dangers of lithium batteries. There are three options they have when an electric car catches fire.

The first and preferred option is non-intervention, basically monitoring the fire as it burns itself out.

Hawaii Fire Department Battalion Chief Patrick Springer said this is the fastest way if it “isn’t imminently posing a threat to life or property.”

While that may disrupt traffic, sometimes for hours, it’s also safer and saves water, according to experts.

That’s because the high-voltage battery is encased in metal under the car and it’s difficult to access with a hose. “You’re just shooting water on the outside so we can cool it, but it’s not going to stop it,” Springer said.

The second option for firefighters is to take a defensive approach.

That means clear out people and other cars around it while to burns.

Christina Baxter, of a company called Hazard 3, was in charge of the course in Hilo.

Baxter said the defensive approach is meant to limit the damage caused by the car fire.

“We have to be careful about everything else,” she said.

The third option Baxter teaches is an offensive approach.

“We’re getting in close and personal with the fire,” Baxter said, adding fighting the flames is necessary if the burning car is in a parking garage or threatening to ignite other vehicles or harm people.

“Try to get it out (and) at least temporarily to get it moved away from that location.”

The battery can re-ignite later. That’s happened on tow trucks and in tow yards, but at least the danger is removed from the public.

The good news: Electric vehicles rarely catch fire compared to gas powered ones. Research by auto insurance agencies found a traditional gas car is three times more likely to ignite than an EV.

The problem is when EVs do go up flames, putting them out is a bear.

An EV can ignite when the battery is compromised, which can happen in a crash. Overheating is another reason an EV goes up in flames.

Electric cars now make up about 8% of all the vehicles on Hawaii roads. That means it’s just a matter of time before one catches fire. Springer said when it happens, his department is ready to respond.