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BELLINGHAM — With electric vehicle ownership in Whatcom County more than doubling from 2019 to 2022, the Bellingham Fire Department is preparing for the challenge it brings to fighting car fires.
“It is newer, considering the timeline of things,” Bellingham Fire Department Captain Dustin Michaelis. said. “We have these gasoline fires and we have adapted over time and many years. We are seeing a lot more electric vehicles on the road, it is something we will become more attuned with over time.”
Washington state plans to phase out sales of gas-powered vehicles by 2035 and Whatcom EV ownership reached 1,763 in 2022, according to the Washington State Department of Licensing.
While the increase in EVs is good news for the environment, with EVs having a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline cars, it has created challenges. An EV can burn hours longer than a gas-powered vehicle, Michaelis said.
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Electric vehicles are actually less likely to catch fire than a gas vehicle. A study found for every 100,000 of each type of car sold, 25 EVs burned compared to 1,530 gas vehicles and 3,475 hybrids, according to AutoinsuranceEZ.
The plan to fight an EV fire is the same as any other fire, dump water on it until it goes out, Michaelis said. However, because EVs burn hotter and longer, with a chance to rekindle, EV fires can take 20-30 times as much water as a gas fire.
A fire engine carries 500 gallons of water, usually enough to extinguish a gasoline vehicle fire, but far from enough to stop an EV fire. That means fire departments have to spend more time and resources fighting an EV fire.
Most EVs store their batteries in a water-tight, fire-resistant box. This helps protect the batteries from catching fire, but once they do, those boxes make extinguishing a fire very difficult. Michaelis said other fire departments have jacked up vehicles to get to the battery underneath.
A foam concentrate and water mixture can be used on an EV, but it doesn’t extinguish the fire, it only slows it down. Not only does the waterproof box make it difficult to get the foam into the battery, but the battery will continue to burn even under the foam.
“When it comes to these lithium-ion batteries, they don’t need oxygen to burn, they are able to continually burn through the battery reaction that is happening,” Michaelis said.
An EV in California crashed into a home in 2017 and it took several hours and thousands of gallons of water to get the blaze under control, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Firefighters were putting water on the top of the vehicle, but didn’t realize they needed to get water up underneath the car and into the battery cells.
The fire also re-ignited as the car was being loaded onto the tow truck. The re-ignition was caused by other parts of the battery short-circuiting while the vehicle was being moved, according to the safety board.
Bellingham doesn’t see this issue very often, mostly in smaller batteries on electric scooters or the like, Michaelis said. However, with the increase of electric vehicles every year, it is only a matter of time.
“We are trying to be proactive about it,” Michaelis said.
The Bellingham Fire Department is looking for ways to train firefighters in how to combat EV fires, and it may begin the training early 2023, Michaelis said.
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