Although electric cars are much less likely to catch fire than gas cars and the burn is typically slow at first, putting out the fire requires much calculation and time.
Many police officers and especially firefighters have undergone special training on how to deal with electric vehicle crashes and fires. This is because the situation is much different from that of an ICE car. As we move forward with more and more EVs on the roads, authorities will have to continue to train and revamp the process.
More information: Update 5: Video From Immediate Aftermath Of Tesla Model X Crash, NTSB Investigation
Tesla battery pack
Dealing with a battery fire is almost completely unrelated to a gas fire. The only similarity between the two is the "fire" part. Likewise, dealing with an EV requires a whole different process from that of an ICE car.
Reports are saying that it took authorities about six hours to take care of the recent Tesla Model X crash, which is about twice as long as typical accidents. Needless to say, aside from the fact that an EV was involved, this was an extremely devastating accident.
Generally, a typical accident fire can be extinguished in about five minutes. This is not true when you have some 7,000 individual cells progressively lighting up. A spokesperson for the California Highway Patrol, Officer Art Montiel shared with ABC News:
Because the battery was exposed, we were unsure whether it was safe for us to move the vehicle.
The battery itself overheats, the plastic components that separate the modules of the battery begin to ignite, and eventually, you wind up with a battery that is on fire.
The key words here are "progressively" and "eventually." It's fortunate that each cell is separated and it takes a significant amount of time for the entire battery to become engulfed. Meanwhile, if there are any survivors in or near the crash, they have ample time to flee the area. Firefighters can also rest assured that the potential for a huge, immediate fire will not likely be the case.
Mountain View’s fire chief holds up what’s left of a Tesla battery cell after Friday’s crash on 101. More than 7000 cells make up the battery, which can burn at over 900 degrees Fahrenheit if ignited. @Tesla says its cars are 5x less likely to catch fire in crashes than gas cars. pic.twitter.com/2j2r1m6frw
— Jonathan Bloom (@BloomTV) March 27, 2018
Fire chief Juan Diaz said it would take about 3,000 gallons of water to put the fire out, or the team could just choose to wait and let the fire run its course. The firefighters didn't opt for either of the latter. The chief called Tesla instead:
The environmental hazard that creates, as well as the traffic hazard, was not an option we wanted to explore.
Even after 24 hours of extinguishment, these (lithium) ion batteries could reignite if they've been damaged, and again cause a fire.
This is the first time that we've had to consult Tesla to have them respond to the scene.
That's one of the advantages of being in Silicon Valley -- that some of the best minds and engineers are just around the corner.
Tesla has worked with the Mountain View Fire Department before, related to the training sessions we explained above. Diaz is well aware that there will be more of these EV crashes in the future, and now they can secure a better plan. He concluded:
We know there's gonna be more and more coming in the future. For the fire service, what it means is we're gonna have to be on the scene longer.
Still, the firefighters were on the scene at 9:30 AM and not back in service until 4:30 PM, and some even had to sit at the retaining yard and watch the Model X battery in case of a flare-up. Diaz says that in the event of an ICE vehicle fire, respondents could have been back in service within minutes.
Tesla has made an initial comment on the situation, which you can read by clicking here.