Electric vehicles – a growing danger in confined urban transport?


SNAFU Solomon linked to a tweet with this video of an electric bus that caught fire in China.

That’s what happens when lithium batteries burn.  They produce enormous internal pressure that blows out through the casing and burns like a blowtorch.  The bus’s batteries were/are much bigger than those in an electric car, so they burn correspondingly more fiercely.  Here’s what happens when one bus catches fire in a rank of them.

(There are many video clips of burning electric vehicles on YouTube, if you want to watch them.)

I’m looking at the growing trend overseas, particularly in China, for electric buses to take over city routes from those using fossil fuels, and I’m thinking this could be very dangerous.  Imagine being in your car, or a taxi, stopped in traffic next to a bus like that, and it catches fire.  With those blowtorch-like flames starting up so quickly, coming right at you, how on earth would you get out of your vehicle and reach safety?

Just a thought . . . but a very worrying one.  I presume we’ll be more and more likely to encounter such vehicles on US city streets before long.  Would any firefighters or first responders among our readers care to comment?



  1. That wasn't an electric bus in your first video – it was methane powered, and what you see if flames shooting out of the gas canisters.

    Still way the heck scarier than any bus fire I've ever seen IRL.

  2. My DH bought a Kia hybrid and was happy with it. After about a year, though, he was driving down I66 at the usual 65 mph when the engine caught fire. Passing drivers were frantically motioning to get his attention to the smoke that was being blown back from the car. Fortunately, he was very close to an exit and a gas station was at the other end of the exit. He drove in as the station staff were sprinting towards him carrying fire extinguishers. He barely had time to get out of the vehicle before the doors AUTOMATICALLY LOCKED and the car was engulfed in flames. We later found out that Kia was well-aware of the fire potential in that particular model but had not issued a recall. No apology from anyone nor did the insurance cover the cost of a replacement.

    And to add insult to what could have been fatal injury, we are still, years later, receiving notices that our insurance has expired on that vehicle and do we want to renew.

    EVs be damned. They are killing machines that should not be on the road. We will never buy another regardless of cost or legislation.

  3. I've worked with testing lithium battery powered small equipment. Even a battery the size of a brick creates a very hot fire with lots of nasty smoke; I can only imagine what a bus battery would do.
    Did you know that electric vehicles are not allowed to park in parking garages? It's not enforced, but there are many safety reasons for it due to the inherent instability of the batteries and the toxic smoke they put off, plus they burn so hot that in theory they could burn through concrete and either fall to the level below or ignite the level abov.

  4. They made a very big mistake hitting the fire with water. Lithium reacts intensely with water to produce Lithium hydroxide and hydrogen. Thus the water could have intensified the fire, or caused an explosion. Also the lithium hydroxide can cause chemical burns. Something for fire departments to be aware of in fighting EV fires.

  5. Happens mostly when it is being charged I think. But people are reporting it going down the road so maybe that is not true.

    Maybe this battery technology should have been in testing a bit longer.

  6. @Virgina Granny – good reminder that one ought to have a seatbelt cutter/window breaker handy. I've got one on my keychain.

  7. Interesting, after doing a little searching it seems most fire trucks don't carry anything for class D fires. Not surprising really, before the advent of electric cars you would really only find class D fires occurring in some industrial or aviation areas and they would all have specific fire suppression systems to deal with them.

    1. The equipment to fight class D fires is very different and very expensive.
      The usual guidance for fire departments is to let metal fires burn and put out anything else that catches from them.

  8. If memory serves, both Simon Illyan and Speaker-to-Animals had tricks for turning stunner batteries into grenades.
    The amount of energy stored in an EV battery is considerable, and the battery contents don't need to be mixed with air to release the stored energy – though, with some battery types, mixing the contents with air or water is an alternative method of liberating large amounts of energy.
    Lithium battery technology has made power tools (and laptop computers) ever so much more usable than the ones that used NiCd or NiMH batteries, but such efficient energy storage does have its dangers.

  9. When I worked at Dow Chemical, they taught us how to fight metal fires (e.g. magnesium, lithium, aluminum) and they are MUCH more difficult than most other types of fires, and require specialized fire fighting agents and equipment. The stuff can be water -reactive, like lithium, or burn so hot that water dissociates into oxygen and hydrogen, adding to the fire.

  10. If I understand it correctly, a charged-battery fire is an even bigger problem than a regular class D fire, as even cutting off the oxygen (flooding the fire with argon, tossing the inferno into outer space, etc.) won't put a stop to it until the chemicals from the two sides of the battery finish reacting with each other.
    Kind of like trying to extinguish a fire involving both components of a binary explosive, where the components aren't quite mixed but are separated by a very thin barrier that's gotten damaged and was never fireproof to begin with.
    Worse than a magnesium fire; not as bad as trying to put out a burning Titan II.

  11. These electric vehicle fires worry me. As a fire chief (in rural Montana, where these electric cars are still rather scarce, thankfully) I try to keep abreast of new developments in this area, but honestly, it's a bit much to try to keep up with the specifics of different models of vehicles, where the disconnects are, where we can cut and can't cut, battery locations, etc. I watched a podcast earlier today where a crew spent nearly 9 hours and used 26,000 gallons of water to completely extinguish an electric car fire. At 1000-1500 gallons of water per engine, we'll have to setup porta-tanks or rely on direct tender hookups to the engine, coordinate tender operations for water supply (there's only ONE fire hydrant in our district and Mr. Murphy says the electric car fire isn't going to occur there) and deal with refilling and shuttling air bottles. That's a major operation that we'd probably need mutual aid just to deal with the issue. Couple that with potentially having to close down a lane or two of a highway. This is the kind of thing that gives me MORE sleepless nights than usual.

    Hopefully, car manufacturers will eventually arrive at some shared standards. The current state of things makes me view electric vehicle incidents (fire or victims requiring extrication) as significantly more difficult and hazardous for fire crews and the drivers and passengers of these vehicles.

  12. MNW – sand or purple K doesn't work – once these batteries get going, they produce their own oxygen. The only thing that works is to cool them down with water. LOTS and LOTS of water.

  13. @VirginiaGranny:

    With all due respect, what kind of in-bred #$%^tard drives a car on fire INTO A GAS STATION?

    Asking for a Friend.

  14. MNW: "I want to hear that story"

    Sorry, I don't have an actual story. Of course, if I did have such a story, I'd surely deny it. Is denial the new confession? Anyway….

    Think of it as a random hypothetical involving a fire in which the fuel and oxidizer are both supplied from within, but are not pre-mixed. For extra fun, in the case of a Titan II both propellants are wildly toxic and react on contact with each other. In the case of a lithium battery, if it's a type with metallic lithium present when it's charged, that lithium will react vigorously with any water that comes in contact with it – so the water takes away heat, but possibly accelerates the energy release.

    The rational approach to such a fire is to run away very fast. Alas, sometimes it's necessary to Do Something – such as throw the flaming battery pack someplace nonflammable and then run away, or rescue bystanders and then run away, etc.

    But look at the bright side: the smoke from a battery fire may have antidepressant properties! (Very not recommended.)

  15. Interesting comments on my story. Allst I can say is that the gas station has a lot of open parking space AND, apparently, the extinguishers were the kind you use on electrical fires and had no trouble putting the fire out, so Im guessing it wasnt the battery. The guys who helped DH obviously had experience and knew what they were doing because it worked. As to the seatbelt cutter – that's fine if you can get the door open, but 60 yo disabled overweight drivers like DH arent going out the window. If the doors had locked before he escaped (and it was only seconds later that they did), that would have been the end of my story.

  16. One, or perhaps two car carriers have sunk mid-Atlantic,after on-board fires caused crews to abandon them. One was loaded with exotics, and high end Porches and Mercedes. Wonder how many EVs where being shipped? 🤔🤨

  17. J T Block:

    the ship was lost due to an EV battery fire they couldn't control.

    I'm thinking those ships need to have parking slots that slope to the outside with hatches that push open when the car is released. I'm guessing that the ships are going to have to be designed or rebuilt to discharge a flaming car, or insurance costs will eliminate shipping them. If the shipper/insurer can charge the manufacturer for the loss of the ship and contents, they won't be transported in the future.

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