Electric vehicle fires: The little-known but terrifying reality about EV batteries – after one from an MG caused a blaze that destroyed five cars and a Tesla burst into flames


Fires sparked from lithium-ion batteries found in popular items like e-bikes, e-scooters and electric vehicles are on the rise – with two cars bursting into flames on the same day this week.

And a well-placed source said fire brigades across Australia were ‘very concerned’ they would continue to increase as the use of lithium-ion batteries soars.

‘What we do know, is there will be more fires,’ the source said, noting that the fumes from a battery fire were far more toxic than those of a standard one. 

Firefighters were called to a carpark at Sydney Airport on Monday to find five cars had become burnt-out wrecks.

The lithium battery, which had been detached from an MG ZS EV, was identified as the cause of the blaze in the Airport Drive parking lot in Mascot. 

Meanwhile on the same night in Penrose, in NSW’s Southern Highlands, a Tesla Model 3 caught alight after being struck by the tail shaft of a truck in front of it.

Firefighters from the Penrose Rural Fire Brigade luckily managed to extinguish the blaze. 

The driver and passenger inside were able to pull over and get out of the car before it burst into flames, with firefighters putting out the blaze in just over half an hour. 

NSW Fire and Rescue Superintendent Adam Dewberry said there were 165 reported fires related to lithium-ion batteries last year in the state.

From the start of this year up until the end of July, that number is at 114.

‘We’re seeing a number of these lithium-ion related fires, there’s no doubt about that,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.

‘That’s why we’ve launched a collaborative research program into it.’ 

However, the source said the real figure would be ‘double’ that number in NSW alone. 

The source said the problem is technology advances have leapt ahead of regulation and laws. Multi-storey carparks were built to withstand fires started by conventional vehicles, not those started by ‘a thermal event caused by battery breakdown’.

Fire and Rescue NSW has launched a collaborative research program known as the Safety of Alternative and Renewable Energy Technologies (SARET). 

With the help of other fire services, government agencies and research institutions, the program will look at the best responses to lithium-ion battery related fires and EV-related fires.

Mr Dewberry said both of the two EV-related fires on Monday had been sparked by external factors.

‘The battery in the car under the airport was already damaged and had been removed, and the one in Penrose had hit some debris,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.

‘We’re monitoring the whole situation and so far it’s been good and EVs are predominantly safe. But there’s still things we are continuing to research.’

Mr Dewberry said it was hard to say whether a non-electric car would’ve caught alight after being hit with debris, similar to the EV that was struck in Penrose.

‘It’s definitely possible,’ he said.

‘We seen non-electric vehicles catch fire after collisions. The SARET program is about making sure they stay on the front foot and identify risks if there are any.’

Dr Matthew Priestley, who has a PhD in electrical engineering at the University of New South Wales, said the most important thing EV drivers needed to be aware of was not overheating the battery.

Thermal runaway, as it’s known, is when the battery uncontrollably overheats, and is not able to cool down.

Firefighters are seen extinguishing a fire inside a Tesla after the battery overheated in Penrose, NSW

Five cars were found burnt out in the carpark of Sydney Airport after a lithium-ion battery caught alight

Five cars were found burnt out in the carpark of Sydney Airport after a lithium-ion battery caught alight 

‘It’s like a snowball going down a hill. The key is you never want to let the battery get past that temperature,’ Mr Priestley told Daily Mail Australia.

‘Once you get past that temperature, even if you extinguish the fire, it can still reignite hours and even days afterwards if you haven’t cooled it down.’

Dr Priestley said another issue with the batteries is that when they’re on fire, they emit toxic emissions ‘you don’t want to breathe’. 

‘Getting close to the battery isn’t just a fire risk, it’s also a toxic risk,’ he said.

He said electric vehicles have very high quality manufacturing when it comes to lithium batteries.

For example, Teslas have battery management systems that inform the driver when the battery is experiencing a problem.

Dr Priestley said treating a car, especially an electric vehicle, with the upmost respect was the key to safety.

He said following a serious collision, EV owners should have the battery inspected as crashes can often mean it becomes mechanically damaged – which can lead to overheating.

He also advised owners to never purchase second-hand batteries or do a DIY job on their EV.

A fire that started in an electric vehicle's lithium-ion battery has left five cars burnt out at Sydney Airport

A fire that started in an electric vehicle’s lithium-ion battery has left five cars burnt out at Sydney Airport

‘These cars are safe, treat them with respect and if you do suspect there’s a problem, get in contact with your car manufacturer,’ he said.

‘Don’t try and put out the fire yourself because you may think you’re putting it out but really you’re just breathing in toxic fumes.’

Emma Sutcliffe, the Project Director at EV Fire Safe, which provides free electric vehicle fire safety knowledge for emergency responders, said there were often warning signs that an EV battery had overheated.

‘There are loud noises like gunshots and popping sounds,’ she said.

‘There are also whistling sounds which is the gasses escaping from the battery.’

She said while EV batteries can take a lot of damage before they catch on fire, the bigger concern was lithium-ion batteries in smaller devices. 

‘Where we are concerned is e-bikes and e-scooters as they have a much poorer quality battery,’ she said. 

The fire was traced to a battery that had been removed from the vehicle and stored on the lot

The fire was traced to a battery that had been removed from the vehicle and stored on the lot

Monday’s incidents were the only two EV-related fires in NSW this year.

Fires involving other electric motor devices like scooters and bikes are much more common. 

In June, the garage of a home in Bass Hill in Sydney’s southwest erupted into flames after a man accidentally charged a faulty battery for his e-bike, which he’d bought off a friend.

On the same day in Orange, in NSW’s central west, another fire broke out in a garage after a lithium battery a man had been using to charge his drone, exploded.

The man had to rush his daughter out of the house and use a garden hose to extinguish the blaze.

FRNSW Acting Deputy Commissioner, Trent Curtin, said the residents in both cases were lucky they weren’t seriously injured or killed.

‘Lithium-Ion batteries, when faulty or damaged, can over-heat and have the potential to explode violently, resulting in fires that can reignite once extinguished and sometimes take days to burn,’ Acting Deputy Commissioner Curtin said at the time.

‘Always stick to reputable battery brands, ensure they’re compliant and don’t mix and match components.

‘Don’t leave Lithium-Ion batteries constantly on charge, don’t sleep when they’re charging and unplug them if you’re leaving home.’

Mr Curtin said the fire service was averaging one lithium-ion fire a week.

‘I’m concerned someone’s going to die if they don’t heed the safety advice,’ he said.

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