Following Hurricane Idalia’s landfall in Florida’s Big Bend near Keaton Beach on Wednesday, a local fire and rescue service has advised owners of electric-powered vehicles, such as golf carts and scooters, that salt water can cause the batteries to catch fire.
Palm Harbor Fire Rescue on Florida’s Gulf Coast posted the warning on Facebook Wednesday afternoon, advising owners to remove any battery-powered vehicles that had come into touch with salt water from their garages to avoid the fire from spreading to the structure.
The warning was allegedly triggered by a fire in a Tesla on Wednesday in nearby Dunedin, a city immediately south of Palm Harbor’s unorganized territory.
“If you own a hybrid or electric vehicle that has come into contact with saltwater due to recent flooding within the last 24 hours, it is crucial to relocate the vehicle from your garage without delay.,” the post warned. “Saltwater exposure can trigger combustion in lithium-ion batteries. If possible, transfer your vehicle to higher ground.”
“This includes golf carts and electric scooters,” the post added. “Don’t drive these through water. PHFR crews have seen numerous residents out in golf carts and children on scooters riding through water.”
Last year, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian’s damage, the state fire marshal warned of the dangers that electric vehicle batteries posed to residents living in storm-prone coastal locations.
Florida Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis had already expressed his concerns before sending a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last October seeking answers about what the Sunshine State would face in the future.
Patronis set a deadline of Oct. 14 for NHTSA Executive Director Jack Danielson to respond to questions about the threat to Florida firefighters posed by electric vehicles in the hurricane zone with lithium batteries that have been damaged by saltwater exposure and eventually ignited.
Patronis detailed his own experiences last week when he experienced firsthand the challenge firemen face when putting a fire in an electric vehicle in the letter.
“On October 6th, I joined North Collier Fire Rescue to assess response activities related to Hurricane Ian and saw with my own eyes an EV continuously ignite, and continually reignite, as fireteams doused the vehicle with tens-of-thousands of gallons of water.
“Subsequently, I was informed by the fire department that the vehicle, once again reignited when it was loaded onto the tow truck. Based on my conversations with area firefighters, this is not an isolated incident. As you can appreciate, I am very concerned that we may have a ticking time bomb on our hands.”
Patronis asked five questions, paraphrased below:
- Has the NHTSA instructed manufacturers of electric vehicles to inform customers about the particular dangers flooding pose to lithium batteries?
- Does standard firefighter gear protect against gases from EV fires?
- Should removing EVs from a hurricane zone be a designated duty in storm cleanup efforts?
- Does the NHTSA have information about specific timelines for the danger from post-flooding fires in EVs?
- Does the NHTSA have any guidance on locations where compromised electric vehicles can be taken where they can burn out safely?
Since Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, the NHTSA has been researching the effects of seawater corrosion on electric vehicles.
“Fires in electric vehicles can pose unique challenges for firefighters and other first responders,” the email stated. “Since similar issues emerged with EVs after Superstorm Sandy, NHTSA has been researching the effect of saltwater immersion on batteries, and working with stakeholders to equip first responders with best practices on fighting battery fires.”
The NHTSA started a Battery Safety Initiative in 2021. The purpose, according to CNET, is to “research areas such as battery diagnostics, management systems, and even cybersecurity to ensure future cars with batteries onboard to power the entire vehicle are as safe as can be.”
Given that electric vehicles in big numbers are a relatively new phenomenon, it’s likely that the country, even a year later, just lacks the expertise to fully understand some of the answers to all of Patronis’ inquiries.
There’s a ton of EVs disabled from Ian. As those batteries corrode, fires start. That’s a new challenge that our firefighters haven’t faced before. At least on this kind of scale. #HurricaneIan pic.twitter.com/WsErgA6evO
— Jimmy Patronis (@JimmyPatronis) October 6, 2022
However, until such answers are provided, it is preferable to just acknowledge the risks and do what we can to reduce them, which includes, obviously, keeping salt water away from EVs and EVs away from salt water.