ICE cars have 4x higher fire risk than EVs but fire fighters say EV fires are more dangerous, here's why
Hans · Jan 15, 2023 06:00 PM
The topic of fires involving battery electric vehicles (BEVs or battery EVs) is a sensitive one. It annoys EV enthusiasts because reports of fires involving EVs tend to be overly sensationalized by the media - which is true.
If a Proton or a Perodua catches fire, it’s not a news that many will share on their social feeds. Conversely, if an EV catches fire, you can be sure that attention grabbing headlines will follow.
The more fanatical worshippers of Elon Musk say that this is part of an anti-EV conspiracy by the legacy automakers- and oil industry-funded media. Well in this age of Echo Chamber Effect algorithm-driven personalized social media feeds, people choose to believe what they want to believe.
The simple truth is that society normalizes the extreme - a regular car on fire for example - but pay great attention to outliers, things they are not used to seeing. EVs are outliers and the public loves a "Hah, still think you are better than everyone else?" effect that a burning EV brings to EV lobbyists and fans - whose very vocal demands for special privileges are often perceived by the general public as being delusional and elitist.
EQ and PR 101 - if you want to make friends and win support for your cause, don't create distance between yourself and others.
The media cannot lead public sentiment, at least not anymore in this age of social media. It is only a reflection of what the public wants to see so when a particular topic captures the attention of many, media outlets will inevitably engage in one-upmanship with their rival publications to cover the topic, with increasingly controversial headlines and photos. The end result is the demonization of EVs every time an EV catches fire. It is not because of any anti-EV conspiracy funded by oil companies, or the favourite whipping boy of EV fanatics - Toyota, but because this is the conclusion that the public wants to see.
Step away from EVs for a moment. The public is numbed with reports of yet-another-death after a car crash because society accepts it, but if a child dies in school, there will be an uproar, even though parents' failure (including the critics themselves) to use child seats are the leading cause of death of children in any country that is not at war. The trending topic will be played up for at least 3 days, the public will demand for blood offering to appease their anger, before moving on to something more interesting to comment and satisfy their urge to roleplay as subject matter experts on.
This is the reality of the free content, social media-driven world, and everyone of you voted for this reality because nobody wants to pay for subscription.
Going back to the topic of EV fires, Korea offers an interesting case study because two car companies - one ICE, one battery EV - had been subjects of intense investigations by Korean safety regulators following a spate of fires involving their vehicles. The first was BMW's diesel-powered models in 2018, the second was Hyundai in 2021, when its Kona EV was found to have faulty LG Chem batteries that lead to fires.
Since both captured the attention of the public, the Korean fire department and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, the latter oversees vehicle recalls, have made information on vehicle-related fires public.
Your ICE car has greater fire risk than an EV, but....
The first reported case of an EV catching fire was in 2017, and since then the Korean fire department has responded to 83 EV fires. In that same period, there were 27,727 fires involving ICE cars. EV blogs often jump in at this point and say that fires with ICE vehicles are 100, but this is a deeply flawed conclusion because it doesn't take into account their relative vehicle population size.
Korea has 25.7 million registered vehicles as of 2022, of which only around 300,000 are battery EVs. This translates to a 0.11% fire incidence rate ICE cars and 0.03% for battery EVs. In other words, ICE vehicles are nearly 4x more likely to catch fire than EVs, but certainly not 100x more as some EV evangelists say.
But the data also needs to be framed in context - the average age of an ICE vehicle is a lot older, and a lot more varied, including commercial vehicles that operate for much longer hours everyday, often under extreme driving conditions. Meanwhile. battery EVs models are typicaly less than 10 years old, are usually privately-owned cars, driven in far less demanding conditions, covering shorter distances.
Also, fire fighters don’t believe in their own statistics, because they know that theoratical stats oversimplify the complexity of the issue.
The problem with EV fires is not how often they happen, but how difficult it is to put them out
Fire fighters hate battery EVs because although EVs have lower fire risks, they can still catch fire and when they do, it’s incredibly difficult to put them out. In fact, there is no way to put out an EV fire. You can do your best to supress the fire, but the EV will burn again hours later.
There’s only one way to put out an EV fire – which is to temporarily snuff it out, and then find a way to quickly move the vehicle to a safe flat ground to dunk it into a pool of water or leave it to burn itself out in an open field (and emitting more toxic fumes).
New fire-fighting methods like fire-retardant blankets are being developed, but this is only temporary fire suppressant measure.
A new generation of lithium-ion phosphate (LFP) technology popularized by BYD's Blade Battery is supposed to dramatically cut fire risks, as are solid state batteries which Toyota is working on but commercial viability is still years away.
To be clear, hybrids also present similar challenges, but because their high voltage battery is easily 50 times to 100 times smaller, at less than 1 kWh, it is still manageable with existing fire fighting tools. Plug-in hybrids however, with their larger circa 10 kWh to 20 kWh battery size present higher risks.
Korea is a major producer of EVs but the National Fire Agency laments that only 3 out of the 18 fire department headquarters in Korea are equipped with an open-top water tank to dunk a smouldering EV into. Of greater concern is that fire departments in Seoul and Jeju Island, both hot spots for EV sales, don’t have such equipment.
A fire involving an ICE vehicle can be quickly put it out by a single fire truck in a matter of minutes, using around 1,000 litres of water, but a burning EV needs 100,000 litres of water sprayed over a period of 72 hours, requiring the support of many more fire trucks.
To control a recent EV fire that happened in Jeju last month, involving a Chevy Bolt (video above), fire fighters sprayed 22 tons of water to cool the Perodua Myvi-sized EV, and this is after putting out the initial fire before towing it to a safe place so they can setup a makeshift pool.
On 7-December, a Tesla Model X caught fire in a Tesla service centre in Seoul (video below). It took 13 fire trucks - including 5 water tank trucks and 6 pump trucks - and 52 fire fighters, excluding other rescue operation vehicles and paramedics, more than 3 hours to put out the fire!
Also, fire fighters need to trace the ignition source of any fire because they can begin put it out but since battery cells are concealed within a protective case, it is impossible to do visual assessments. The location of the battery also differs from one EV to another.
Remember that fire fighters have to work with mangled cars, sometimes in dangerous positions, with occupants trapped inside. It is extremely difficult to identify the make and model when all they can see are four wheels facing the sky, sometimes resting on unstable ground. Without knowing its make or model, fire fighters can’t tell if the vehicle’s battery is located under the floor pan, under the rear seat, or under the boot floor, or where is the master fuse to cut power supply.
You can tell if an engine is running. With an EV, fire fighters have no way to tell if it’s safe to cut open the car to rescue the people trapped inside, because high voltage cables snake within the car's body.
Fire fighters can easily assess the fire risk of an ICE vehicle because they can see and smell fuel, but electricity is invisible. The problem applies to regular hybrids too.
Manufacturers have tried to help fire fighters by placing QR codes in key locations fire fighters are trained to first look. But seriously, do you expect a fire fighter wearing protective gloves, working under severe time pressure and thermal risks, to somehow whip out his phone to scan a QR code, load a pdf file, and zoom in to some diagram?
Many EVs also have electrically operated, hidden door handles that pop out only when activated. They are designed to release in an accident, but fire fighters will tell you that their experience with real-world incidences say otherwise.
On 6-December 2022, a Hyundai Ioniq 5 taxi in Yeongju, for unknown reasons, accelerated towards a building and crashed into it (video above). The vehicle caught fire almost immediately and passers by said they struggled to open the door to rescue the driver because the door handles stayed flushed with the body. Failing to open the doors they even tried to look for a release button on the boot but that wouldn't open either. They also couldn’t break the windows.
While waiting for the fire truck to arrive, residents in the area used 10 fire extinguishers on the car but still could not put out the fire. The taxi driver in his 70s died.
It took 41 fire fighters in 13 fire department vehicles to put out the fire, which burned for 2 hours. It is not an understatement that fire fighters really hate EVs. So while ICE fires are more common, the effects with EVs catching fire is far more severe.
But whether they like it or not, the population of EVs will only keep increasing, and facing higher risks when battling vehicle fires is an unfortunate reality that under-appreciated fire fighters all over the world will have to deal with.
New guidelines / requirements from insurers, fire department
Although ICE cars catch fire more often than EVs, Korean insurers see EVs as a higher risk vehicle, and are encouraging EV charging services providers to look into better fire suppression methods to contain the damage should an EV catch fire while charging.
The Korea Expressway Corporation for example, have started installing water retention tubes that can quickly be raised to surround a burning EV, turning it into a makeshift pool that is high enough to submerge the battery.
The Korean fire department is also drawing guidelines to make water retaining barricades that can be quickly setup around a burning EV compulsory for every charging station. Without it, insurers won't pay for any damage caused by an EV fire.
In the absence of sufficient assurance, some building owners are reacting in a totally extreme manner – by outrightly banning EVs from entering their building. A building in Korea recently went viral there because its management had put up a sign that says EVs are banned from parking underground.
The building has EV charging facilities but the service has since been disabled.
The management argues that the building houses a hospital and a cinema. An out-of-control fire spreading from its underground car park, an area fire trucks cannot access, coupled by the building’s high human traffic, is a risk the building owner don’t want to take.
Higher fire risks or not, EV sales will continue to increase so we need to prepare
Still, EV population will continue to increase worldwide regardless of what naysayers think. This also means that EV-related fires will increase proportionately, something that Korea is experiencing right now as its EV population crossed the 300,000 units milestone last year.
Closer to home, Bermaz is one of the few, if not the only car company in Malaysia that has addressed this issue in a more serious manner. Many brands have conducted EV fire and rescue methods training to first responders, but most of these are mere classroom lectures.
Bermaz’s BAuto Training School in Glenmarie, Shah Alam went beyond presentation slides and trained our Bomba heroes with high voltage handling-training simulator tools, using curriculum set by the UK’s Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI), the same training received by UK’s fire department.
And since Bermaz sells EV models by Kia, Mazda, and Peugeot (coming soon), it has also trained our Abang Bomba to handle a wide variety of EVs.
Beyond first responders, tow trucks sent by Bermaz Roadside Assistance to tow EVs are equipped with the appropriate high voltage protection safety gear, and the necessary training has already been given to representatives of the towing company.
But this is a voluntary effort by Bermaz. There's only so much one company can do. What about training and equipping fire fighters outside of Klang Valley? Do EV charging service providers in Malaysia have any fire prevention measures in place?
The topic of fire and rescue procedures involving EVs is something that the government will need to address in tandem with its aim to have 10,000 EV charging stations by 2025 (only less than 1,000 setup so far).