In the aftermath of Hurricane Idalia’s Wednesday landfall in Florida’s Big Bend near Keaton Beach, a local fire and rescue department issued a warning to owners of electric-powered vehicles, including golf carts and scooters, that exposure to saline water can cause the batteries to catch fire.
Palm Harbor Fire Rescue on Florida’s Gulf Coast issued the warning on Facebook on Wednesday afternoon, instructing owners to remove battery-powered vehicles from their garages if they had come into contact with saline water in order to prevent the fire from spreading to the structure.
Wednesday’s alert was presumably prompted by a fire in a Tesla in nearby Dunedin, a city located just south of unincorporated Palm Harbor.
“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.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian’s devastation, the state fire marshal issued a warning about the danger posed by electric vehicle batteries to those living in coastal areas susceptible to storm surges.
Jimmy Patronis, the fire marshal of Florida, had previously voiced his concerns in public before sending a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in October of last year inquiring about what the Sunshine State might face in the future.
In a letter sent to NHTSA Executive Director Jack Danielson on October 7, 2022, Patronis set a deadline of October 14 for the national agency 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 exposure to saltwater and have subsequently ignited.
Patronis summarized his own experiences last week, when he witnessed firsthand the difficulty firefighters have suppressing 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?
In an email sent to The Western Journal later that week, the NHTSA stated that it had been researching the effects of saline corrosion on electric vehicles for a decade, since Hurricane Sandy struck in October 2012.
“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 initiated the Battery Safety Initiative in 2021. According to the website CNET, the objective is to “research areas such as battery diagnostics, management systems, and even cybersecurity to ensure that future cars with batteries onboard to power the entire vehicle are as safe as can be.”
Considering that electric vehicles in large quantities are a relatively new phenomenon, it’s likely that the country still lacks sufficient experience to address all of Patronis’ questions even a year later.
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
Until these questions are answered, it is best to simply comprehend the dangers and do what we can to mitigate them, including keeping saline water away from electric vehicles and electric vehicles away from salt water.