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Are EVs more likely to catch fire than gas-powered cars?

As electric vehicles grow in popularity, firefighters in Maine and around the country are faced with a new frontier.

PORTLAND, Maine — Electric vehicle fires get a lot of press when they occur. Part of the reason for the additional coverage is that EV battery fires are significantly harder to extinguish compared to gas car fires.

“The challenges to putting it out is just that," Lt. Chris Swenson of the South Portland Fire Department said of lithium battery fires. "It can create its own oxygen, [meaning] it can sustain its own fire and get bigger and actually have multiple explosions as it burns, so we've got to be cautious, too. When we apply water to it, that can actually increase that fire." 

EV fires can burn significantly hotter than an internal combustion engine fire. Data from FEMA suggest a gas-powered vehicle burns up to about 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit while a battery fire can reach over 2,500 F.

Most fire departments don’t have currently additional equipment or agents to combat this new brand of fire. That means they are dousing these fires with, at times, as much as 20,000 gallons of water to extinguish them or, in other cases, securing the surrounding area and simply letting them burn themselves out. That has its own dangers, however, as chemicals can be emitted in the smoke.

But according to Swenson, products are being developed as EVs continue to grow in popularity. 

“Different products out there, different foams that are being developed, that use different technologies than have been used in the past that we think of with other foams that create a blanket," Swenson said. "This foam is [designed] to encapsulate the product a little bit more, thus inhibiting that reaction that keeps the fire going.” 

Now the million-dollar question: Are EVs more likely to catch fire than gas cars? 

Those data are a bit hard to come by. The National Fire Protection association keeps track of total car fires, about 200,000 a year, but it does not at this time differentiate by gas, electric, or hybrid. 

We can do some reasonable extrapolation, given that only about 1 percent of all vehicles on the road are EVs. Further, Tesla, which is responsible for more than half of U.S. EVs, reported roughly five car fires per billion miles driven compared to 55 fires per billion miles driven among all cars.

One big caveat here is that the majority of car fires occur with older model cars. There aren’t many older EVs on the road, with the older models dating back to about 2012. So more data are needed to be sure, but we can say with reasonable confidence that the risk of fire in EVs isn’t higher than that of gas cars.

Back on the ground in Maine, we asked Swenson whether EVs were more likely to catch fire, based on his experience. 

“They don’t seem to be," he said. "We haven’t experienced one in South Portland yet. We’ve had a bunch of other car fires that are not battery powered. I would say my experience, so far, they don’t seem to be at any more risk of catching fire.”

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