Electric vs Gas Engine Fires in Washington State: Which is More Dangerous?
You always hear how safe and clean electric vehicles are, but is there a real danger Washington State owners face driving them, or is it being overblown?
Bellevue Fire Department Takes Hours to Put Out Electric Car Fire
The Bellevue Fire Department posted on social media on March 7, 2023, about a vehicle accident on 85th and NE 24th St in Bellevue. The pictures from the fire are dramatic, see the complete post at the bottom of this story.
Firefighters were able to pull the victims from the crash before the fire started and they were all transported to a local hospital. Firefighters then fought the blaze for hours by spraying thousands of gallons of water on the electric car fire.
On the post, the Twitter comment section to the electric accident fire exploded with arguments about a range of topics from the safety of electric cars to criticizing the methods used by firefighters.
The Internet Argues Over Electric Car Fire Safety
One user commented, "You would think the FD would know that water is not the best option for a combustible metals fire....don't have class D fire extinguishers?"
They quickly answered, "Okay Mr. Expert. Surely glad you aren't involved in fighting fires of any type. You actually need to know the characteristics of the material that is burning. It is apparent you do not."
Another actually answered the question adding "the problem is the electrolyte (fuel) is encased in a waterproof metal envelope. The best they can do is cool the battery can down with water."
Are Internal Combustion Engines More Dangerous?
One user (wrongly) pointed out that "the fact is your internal combustion car is ten times more likely to catch fire. Tesla’s have the lowest probability of injury from a collision for all vehicles ever tested." Actually, his was wrong in his statement but he had the right idea. The data has shown EVs are even safer than he claims, but we will get to that fact in a minute.
Another answers that comment with facts of their own saying "But the FDs point of the post is that an electric car takes that much longer to extinguish when caught on fire VS an ICE." They also bring up a good point, more on that also later.
Are Electric Vehicles in Washington State Safe?
With so many electric cars being sold in Washington State, are they more or less safe than traditional gas-powered cars?
A recent 2023 study was just released from Auto Insurance Ez that tries to answer that very question. The study shows that after looking at the number of fires per 100,000 cars sold of each type: electric, hybrid, or gas. Electric cars were by far less likely to catch fire, like a lot less likely.
Only 25 Total Fires Per 100,000 Sold
It showed that hybrid vehicles were the most likely to catch fire with 3,474 fires per 100,000. Internal combustion engine cars were second with 1,529 fires per 100,000, and electric cars were the least with only 25 total fires per 100,000 cars sold.
That means according to that data, EVs are over 100 times less likely to catch fire than cars with combustion engines. With so few fires per 100,000 electric cars sold, why are people concerned with electric car fires?
The Actual Dangers of Electric Vehicle Fires
Even though EVs are far less likely to catch fire according to the report, it is a lot more dangerous than a regular combustion engine fire when they do. The facts show that electric car fires burn much hotter and longer than regular combustion engine vehicle fires.
One estimate from the HIll says that around 500-1000 gallons of water are needed to put out a combustion engine vehicle fire, but over 39,625 gallons or 150,000 liters of water are needed for an electric car fire that can burn for hours.
40 Times More Water Neede to Put Out an EV Fire
Another estimate from 2017 shows that firefighters need around 40 times more water to put out an EV fire compared to an internal combustion engine. Both studies come to similar conclusions about the needs firefighters have to fight these kinds of fires more frequently. The study was done by CTIF and you can read all their data on EV fires here.
America Automakers Struggle with Fire Recalls
GM has had fire issues recently with Bolt EVs and EUVs. They recently recalled 140,000 Bolt EVs because of fire danger in December of 2022.
Since then, GM lowered the price of a new Bolt by $6,000 to spark sales. They then had to also offer a $6,000 rebate to owners that paid full price and went through the recall, but it came with a catch.
According to Jalopnik, if they accept the $6,000 rebate, they are promising to:
"Forever waive and release all claims, damages, or causes of action arising out of my Bolt vehicle, the battery defect, or the battery recalls."
EVs Submerged in Saltwater
FEMA and the US Fire Administration have warned that EVs submerged in saltwater from flooding have a high risk of catching fire without an accident. They say in their release that "residual salt within the battery or battery components can form conductive “bridges” that can lead to short circuit and self-heating of the battery, resulting in fires."
They go on to warn that "the time frame in which a damaged battery can ignite has been observed to vary widely, from days to weeks." The warning says that flooded EVs could catch fire at any moment, even just sitting there, and should be moved "at least 50 feet from any structures."
My Own Personal Vehicle Fire Story
My family has only been the victim of one vehicle fire in my life, and it was a combustion engine fire.I was at work in a different city, and my dad was driving our old camper back from the mechanic.
The camper just had the engine rebuilt, and on the way home from the mechanic it burst into flames on the highway. Luckily my dad managed to realize it, pull over, and get out before the whole thing was engulfed in flames.
I was watching a live news video update online, and suddenly realized I was watching my own family. I will say that it was weird to experience finding out live on a news report that the family camper was on fire.
Electric Vehicles or Combustion Engine, Which is Safer?
After looking at all the data, which option is actually safer? Internal combustion engines are far more likely to catch fire, even up to 100 times more likely. However, when they do catch fire, they are much easier to put out.
EV fires are very time and resource intensive. They also release toxic and flammable gases from damaged batteries that endanger firefighters and first responders. Those firefighters need special training and equipment to deal with EV fires that most departments do not have access too yet.
Honestly, for me, both designs have risks involved but those risks still seem low. Fire danger is still not something I probably will think about when choosing the next car I buy. Even though my family has experienced a car fire before, I still worry about other factors more.
The one important thing I learned from this process is that our local firefighters need more support to deal with electric car fires and the specific dangers they pose. Especially now with more and more electric cars being sold every day.