Ian exposed potential fire risk posed by electric vehicles

Published: November 2, 2022 8:52 PM EDT
Updated: November 2, 2022 8:54 PM EDT

Hurricane Ian exposed many vulnerabilities, including the fire risk posed by electric cars if they are submerged in salt water.

The government knew about it for years and even informed rescue personnel how to respond to such a fire, but left largely in the dark were car owners and people who found themselves handling these vehicles after the storm.

One tow truck driver learned about the risk the hard way.

Jay Carrelli drove his new flatbed from Tennessee to Southwest Florida to tow cars impacted by Hurricane Ian.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary when he navigated a 2015 Tesla model “S” out of its south Fort Myers garage and onto his truck.

But just down the road, the situation headed up.

“I went probably a few minutes up the street from the house and loaded another car on the back of my truck from another resident and then probably about 10 minutes later is when the initial smoke started coming out at Tesla,” Carrelli said.

His instinct was to get the cars off his truck. After freeing one, he heard a series of popping noises followed by a firestorm.

“It’s not like, you know, normal little flame. This thing was blowing torches out of both sides,” Carrelli said.

In a video taken by Carrelli, the Tesla is spewing flames like a blowtorch.

Firefighters happened to be at a gas station across the street.

“It did throw a pretty good-sized flame out of the bottom of the car, which I didn’t realize was going to happen,” said Capt. Matt Thunell with the South Trail Fire Department.

It was a first for Thunell. He watched training videos on how to respond to a burning electric vehicle and knew saltwater immersion of the lithium-ion batteries makes them difficult, if not impossible, to put out.

“I was aware that if they do catch on fire, there’s not enough water to put them out. And given the fact that we just had a hurricane come through. We had a lot of issues with water supplies,” Thunell said.

This wasn’t the only electric fire to catch fire after the storm. The state said emergency responders handled eight electric vehicle fires after Ian. One of them burned down two houses.

The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) admits knowing about potential fires related to saltwater immersion as far back as Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

So here we are, ten years later.

WINK News emailed the NHTSA asking if they’ve taken any action.

The federal agency holds the power to issue recalls. In their written reply, the agency stated in part: “After Hurricane Sandy, NHTSA has been researching the effect of salt water immersion on batteries, and working with stakeholders to equip first responders with best practices on fighting battery fires.”

The NHTSA said that combustible engines also could carry a fire risk when submerged.

But nothing prepared Carrelli.

“If I had been unloading that car when that flame initially started shooting out, you know. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have a face left,” Carrelli said.

Florida’s CFO Jimmy Patronis, who also serves as the state fire marshal, witnessed a Tesla battery fire in Naples after Ian.

He sent a letter to Tesla CEO Elon Musk suggesting more should be done.

“I believe we’ve got 10 documented fires that have taken place with EVs based on saltwater intrusion into the battery pack,” Patronis said. “Salt water is an amazing conductor, but that lithium-ion battery will self-ignite. And then once it catches on fire, basically the only solution is a lot of water, or if it’s not damaging to somebody personally, or the property is just to simply let the car burn. That’s not acceptable.”

Extinguishing an EV fire takes anywhere from 10 to 20,000 gallons of water.

It was a small stroke of luck that firefighters were nearby.

“Just right place, right time,” Thunell said. “At the end of the day, we were able to get it fairly quickly before it got out of hand.”

Carrelli was directed to dump the Tesla into a pond because every time firefighters stopped dousing it, the car reignited.

“Oh, yeah. You could feel the heat, the smoke,” Carrelli said. “It was terrifying.”

So, instead of towing other people’s vehicles, Carrelli is now left salvaging his own.

The flooded EVs were towed to Clewiston, where they are being kept, spaced a safe distance apart.

WINK News reached out to Tesla and other EV manufacturers but has not received a reply.

Sen. Rick Scott has called on all manufacturers to correct saltwater submersion issues.