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Video: e-Bike fire sparked by li-ion batteries highlights volatile fuel load dangers

When lithium-ion batteries are stored in bulk, the volatile fuel load presents a major challenge for firefighters

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The fire service is witnessing a new type of fire with the inclusion of lithium-ion batteries in many products. These types of batteries are used to power a variety of vehicles, from electric bikes (e-bikes) to city buses. These new types of batteries are also found inside buildings, which increases potential fuel loads.

When lithium-ion batteries are recharging, they can produce a high amount of heat. If batteries are not being charged with the correct type of charger, they can overheat and ignite a fire.

Where the batteries are stored while charging makes a difference as well. If not in a ventilated area – like on a table or desktop for a cell phone – the item being charged becomes a heat source, which can ignite other products or surfaces. For example, if a cell phone is laying on a pile of clothes while charging, the clothing could ignite due to the generated heat from the battery.

The video in today’s article depicts a fire that took place at a shop that sold e-bikes, powered by lithium-ion batteries. In this incident, the lithium-ion batteries are quite larger than a cell phone, and therefore can produce more heat when recharging. The greater fuel load present contributes to both a quicker growth phase and a quicker flashover phase achieved.

What makes these incidents so challenging is that lithium-ion batteries are not easily extinguished by water. Firefighters have witnessed cars powered by lithium-ion batteries burning for hours or days where water was applied with no effect on the blaze. However, the fuel load for a vehicle burning in a parking lot or on a street is relatively isolated compared to vehicles or lithium-ion batteries stored inside a building, where the exposure of the building and its contents will contribute to fire’s rapid spread.

Bottom line: the fire service is facing a new type of volatile fuel load, and we must be ready to respond.

Training time

After watching this video and reading about this news story with your company, department leaders should:

1. Research. Research new products that are available to the fire service that will assist with extinguishing lithium-ion battery fires. Check out these resources:

2. Learn from others. Research other incidents that have occurred with lithium-ion batteries to see how the local fire department mitigated the situation. Start with these recent incidents and follow-up analyses:

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.