A crash and subsequent fire of a Tesla Model S this past weekend quickly caught attention online for its "four-hour" blaze, but that's not exactly what happened, the fire chief told Car and Driver today.
The initial fireball was contained in a matter of minutes, and it was just tiny flareups that were a longer-lasting problem, chief Palmer Buck explained to the Houston Chronicle and C/D.
Although the chief acknowledges EV fires require different tactics by firefighters, Tesla and government safety data asserts that traditional internal-combustion vehicles experience one fire for every 19 million miles traveled; for Teslas EVs, it's one fire for 205 million miles traveled.
It didn’t take long for reports to spread online that a Tesla Model S crash in a gated subdivision in The Woodlands, near Houston, Texas, this past weekend outwitted firefighters for four hours. The reality, according to the local fire chief, turned out to be much less exciting (though still tragic for those involved, including two people inside the car who died). There's a lesson here about how continuous advancements in the auto industry force first responders into an endless arms race for information.
"We are always challenged in the fire service to keep up with the latest trends,” fire chief Palmer Buck of The Woodlands Township in Texas told Car and Driver. "Several years ago it was compressed natural gas and before that it was propane-powered vehicles and biodiesel."
Changes in how vehicle frames are welded together and where airbags are located in cars have given local fire departments reasons to regularly upgrade their extrication tools, Buck said, and new powertrains mean first responders always have more to study to stay up-to-date. "It's a continual learning exercise, and EVs have been part of that, from the very first Prius hybrids that we saw to the all-electric cars," he said. "The good news is, for us, is that the basic firefighting tool is to put a lot of water on it. That's an instruction that a lot of firefighters like. That being said, this was our first experience with a large-scale runaway lithium-ion fire."
Speaking of the recent Tesla incident, an overwhelming amount of water did end up being the solution, but the way it was applied gave Twitter and other online sources reason to claim the blaze lasted many hours. A picture of the burned vehicle that quickly circulated furthered the story that this was a dramatic firefight, but Buck said almost all of the damage was done in the first 10 minutes after the Tesla struck a tree.
The initial fire was quickly put out, he said, but the vehicle smoldered and continued to ignite after that, which is why firefighters used a small-diameter hose to keep water running onto the area, to deal with any small flames that started. Pine sap from the trees also caused some flare-ups, Buck said. The bottom of the car, where the battery pack is located, was in contact with the ground, which made it more difficult to get water where it needed to go. When the firefighters finally managed to raise the car, they were also able to stop the chain reaction.
By the time even the smallest embers were finally out, many hours after the crash, somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 gallons were used, Buck said. This was only possible because the incident happened in a residential area with a hydrant nearby. Had the crash happened on a highway, his department’s trucks, which carry between 500 and 1000 gallons, would not have been able to keep on lightly soaking the car for that much time.
It's these kinds of lessons that keep first responders busy, Buck said, adding that he has already gotten calls from other departments to share information they learned here. Some of those lessons came straight from Tesla's electric vehicle safety sheets, which Buck said are "absolutely" the kind of thing first responders need when approaching an EV fire, and that Tesla's are right in line with those from other automakers.
"The instructions are very clear in what you need to do," he said.
On Twitter, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on April 19 that the data logs recovered from the crashed vehicle show that Autopilot was not enabled and that the car's owner "did not purchase [Full Self Driving]." FSD is Tesla’s term for its driver-assistance technology and does not turn a Tesla into an autonomous vehicle.
Tesla, as is so often the case, did not respond to Car and Driver's request for comment. The company does have a "Tesla Vehicle Safety Report" section on its website where it says its vehicles "are engineered to be the safest cars in the world." In the section on vehicle fires, Tesla says that between 2012 and 2020, one Tesla vehicle caught fire, on average, for every 205 million miles traveled. The U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Fire Protection Association say that the average for all vehicles in the U.S. is one vehicle fire for every 19 million miles traveled.The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has not yet issued a preliminary report on the incident.
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