Salt water poses fresh concerns over electric cars and fire

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As of this writing, there’s no way to know whether the Tropical Depression 13 in the Atlantic will turn into Hurricane Lee, but meteorologists are certain it will happen.

“Given the mostly favorable environment for strengthening, the National Hurricane Center forecasts this system to become a hurricane by Thursday and a Category 3 or 4 hurricane by this weekend,” said the Weather Channel on Tuesday, September 5.

Hurricane Idalia, which struck North Florida two weeks ago, was a Category 3. Ian, which hit Southern Florida less than a year ago, was a Category 5.

If Lee does strike the U.S., no matter where, owners of electric cars who live near the coast should beware.

Hurricane Ian fire rescue crews
Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images

At least, that’s the message from Florida Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshall Jimmy Patronis. He wrote that on October 6, 2022, “I joined North Collier Fire Rescue to assess response activities related to Hurricane Ian and saw with my own eyes an EV continuously ignite, and continually reignite, as fire teams doused the vehicle with tens of thousands of gallons of water.

“Subsequently, I was informed by the fire department that the vehicle once again reignited when it was loaded onto the tow truck. Based on my conversations with area firefighters, this is not an isolated incident. As you can appreciate, I am very concerned that we may have a ticking time bomb on our hands.”

Exposure to salt water caused 21 electric vehicles to catch fire in 2022 with Hurricane Ian, and at least half a dozen due to Hurricane Idalia, which did not dump as much salt water on dry land in populated areas as Ian did. An early assessment, before all available data was in, said that of the first 16 reported electric car fires due to Ian, one was a Porsche, one was a Lucid, and 14 were Teslas, the latter of which is by far the most popular electric car brand.

Tesla fjording deep water action
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So what’s really going on? Professor David Richardson, dean of the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Florida explains to Hagerty: “The electrical conductivity of sea water is, compared to other water, much more electrically conductive than distilled water, and it is generally far more conductive than fresh water. Seawater has less conductivity than copper wire, but it is still a great conductor.

“Imagine two electrical connectors with a large voltage across them. Connecting those together (shorting them) with wire results in a very large current flow that can set off a chain of undesirable effects, creating a lot of heat, sparks, etc. The same can happen with sea water.”

Presently the only fire suppression method available to fire departments is douse the battery (underneath the car) with, as Patronis mentioned, sometimes thousands of gallons of water. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the fire won’t reignite, due to “stranded energy” left inside the battery.

Fresh water doesn’t pose the same risk as salt water, even if the car is completely submerged.

On a per-incident basis, the fires are taking a massive amount of time for local departments that, no doubt, are seriously needed elsewhere for search and rescue. That seems to be the case if the electric car is parked outside, away from buildings. If inside a garage, the entire house would be compromised. EV owners may be wise to move their cars inland, if possible, in the event of a storm large enough to flood their property. Even moving the vehicle outside and away from buildings would minimize risk.

This is not to say that fully electric vehicles are more likely to catch fire separate from the salt water addition to the data, because they aren’t. A National Transportation Safety Board firefighter training video says there are 170,000 car fires a year, but only a small percentage involve electric vehicles. A Highway Loss Data Institute bulletin from April reported that among electric vehicles with a conventional ICE counterpart, observed non-crash fire claim frequencies were 26 percent lower for the electric variants. Among electric vehicles without conventional counterparts, results were identical for the Nissan Leaf compared to the Nissan Versa, which is similar in size and body style.

In fact, research by an insurance industry website,, indicates that hybrid vehicles are actually the most fire-prone per 100,000 sales. Gas vehicles are second, and electric vehicles place third, with only 25 fires per 100,000 electric vehicle sales.

In any case, the salt water issue is pressing for those living in flood-prone and seaside regions.

Hurricane Ian aftermath flooded cars sitting underwater
Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images

After Ian, Patronis, the Florida State Fire Marshal, wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, asking for a “more robust” response to battery fires due to salt water exposure that must be extinguished by local fire departments.

“When my office asked National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Tesla officials on how long the risk of fire exists once a battery is compromised from saltwater and/or damage, no credible timetable exists, because the current situation has not been fully researched,” he wrote to Buttigieg.

“As the State Fire Marshal, I must ensure local fire teams have access to all the equipment needed for these operations, including Tender Strike Teams, Engine Strike Teams, Personal Protective Equipment and thermal imagery. Your response may be the difference between life and death.”




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    It is nothing that can’t be resolved. A breaker or fusible link that once it shorts will cut it out.

    There are worst issue to deal with. Just because Musk left this consideration out does not mean it is hard to resolve.

    If you ever saw one of these battery packs, you probably need thousands of them. A battery in an EV isn’t really ‘a’ battery

    Well depends on what car and what battery it uses. The Tesla is made up of many cells while GM is using a pack that has a few large cells that are replaceable. Yes they are batteries as even the acid battery you have in the ICE is made up of cells.

    You are an example of the big problem. No nothing you did wrong but the lack of knowledge and understanding of the benefits and liabilities of the new tech. People for and against both get stuff wrong and many do not understand what is exactly going on at times.

    EV is not as bad as some want to make it but it is not perfect like others like you to believe. It is a work in progress and in time it will get better and better much like ICE did in the early years.

    The main key is to let this develop over time and not force a unproven product on people not willing to be part of the experiment.

    The planet is not going to burn up in 20 years like Al Gore said 30 years ago. The earth is much more balanced and resilient than many give it credit for. Lets face it Earth has made it millions of years without Environmentalist going out to save it.

    God created a planet that is on a fine balance but it always finds its way back. It is a true miracle before us and many miss it. Just a slight change in orbit we become Mars.

    We have looked light years into space but yet to find even a one cell form of life. what we have here is a breathing living planet that tends to clean up after what ever happens.

    Not many EVs live in the “worn out beater” part of the car universe. I suggest this impacts the fire data. (Real car fires I know about were due to lapsed maintenance and/or component failure).

    I’d be curious if the % change if the data only included 5 years and newer vehicles.

    After all, the data cited already takes out crash-related fires. Other stories have talked about EV that “took a hit” self combusting later, though it is hard to cut past the sensationalizing of some of those incidents too.

    The Fire thing is more like the Fiero. The Fiero percentage wise really had nowhere near the fires many think. But when one caught on fire the cell phones came out and the web spread the news.

    There are things to learn and many changes to come. Even if they don’t burn the ICE models are toast too.

    The real fact is there are lies on both sides of this and it is time both side begin to be honest.

    Ummm – I didn’t think that salt water was too friendly with ICE cars, either. Dunk ’em in storm surge, and they got problems, right? That’s why those guys with the power washer parked by the exit from the Bonneville Salt Flats do such good business!

    The biggest issue is fire departments are not prepared for putting out battery fires as they pose unique issues versus ice car fires. ICE cars you put out the fire, the fire is over, battery cars it can restart at a later time depending on what is going on in that battery. I find that part to be the biggest danger. Batteries to me are the EV’s weakness. If we would do a power generator ICE motor that to me makes a better idea at this stage in the EV’s development over batteries.

    Tesla is now putting LFP batteries in they’re newest cars. These are supposedly much safer and durable. I’ve never seen an EV on fire. I see burning gas cars every week.

    The only car fire I’ve seen closely is my neighbor’s diesel powered Dodge Ram pickup. Nobody had used it for three days, and the engine compartment went up without warning.

    The point is, EV fires cannot be extinguished. Also consider the toxic fumes from an EV fire, I feel bad for the firefighters.

    No matter what the problems people should be able to choose what they want and not be forced to buy something so politicians and their friends and benefit. It’s all about the dollar at everyone else’s expense. We can never go all electric and they know it. They have their place and it should be a choice. Time for Big government to be downsized by The People.

    If you make EV’s mandatory, any fires that happen are the fault of the government. People who make the “choice” to buy an electric vehicle and it causes a fire in a city or a national forest, had better have a tremendous amount of insurance.

    The problem is that while the battery can be isolated from the car systems, the battery is still there with a potential energy of between 400 and 800 volts D.C. (depending on the make and model of the car). This poses an obvious risk to First Responders and to occupants who may be trapped inside of a wrecked car. Once one of these batteries is damaged and catches fire, there is no practical way to extinguish the fire, which may re-ignite hours later.

    The EV is listed in the article as not inherently dangerous… but they call it a ticking time bomb.

    Now the government is making the EV mandatory by 2035.

    With eternal respect to all in the fire fighting community, they each have bigger cajones than I’ll ever know, why are EV fires still being fought with water? These batteries make their own oxidizer and therefore will happily burn even if submerged. A radically different approach needs to be implemented. Maybe four fireproof walls that can be quickly erected around it to protect nearby people and property and let it run its course in relative isolation?

    All it takes is one EV with a faulty battery, among the hundreds of new cars in an ocean-going car transporter ship, to ruin your day. … Gary

    I used to get a fire in my gut after drinking scotch. Almost impossible to put out. I quit drinking scotch. If you worry about fire in your EV, maybe you should quit your EV. Jus’ sayin’…

    Check out the sub-sea Tonga Volcano last year. Scientific reports indicate that atmospheric moisture increased by at least 10%, and that that would result in 0.50% increase in weather world-wide. Floods, heat records, but what happens next year when the all the moisture rains out? I’m convinced of climate change, but am supporting the move just because…

    Nissan just had an ev on a charger at their Cool Springs, Tn headquarters catch fire last week due to over charging & it took over 45,000 gallons of water to put it out, versus maybe 1000 for a ICE fire. And 6-7 hours of standby time to make sure it didn’t reignite. Gladly it was outside away from other vehicles & buildings.

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