Editorial: The electric car fire that cost four lives is a warning 

At approximately 11:30 p.m. Friday, two cars collided on Route 25 in East Marion, just west of Truman’s Beach. One car was a Ford Explorer, the other an electric Tesla, which is powered with a lithium battery.

By all accounts in the aftermath of the collision, which claimed four lives, the battery in the Tesla caught fire, engulfing both vehicles. First responders from Orient, East Marion and Southold arrived and, only after two hours of pouring large amounts of water on the burning vehicles, managed to bring the fire under control.

Photographs from the scene show a fire-scarred roadway, which was the result of the intense heat generated by the lithium battery when it caught fire. 

It is not hyperbole to say this fire on a winter’s night on the Orient Causeway is the canary in the coal mine — a warning, in other words — of the challenges the electrification of cars and trucks poses to our first responders if a fire breaks out at an accident site.

Adding to this challenge will be the building of large-scale battery energy storage facilities that are being proposed for both Southold and Riverhead, with fire department officials among those raising questions about them. These storage facilities are critical to the development of green power systems such as offshore windmills. But how safe are they to communities around them? Can our fire departments successfully contain a fire at one of them?

As with the car fire Friday night, the central question that must be answered — and answered soon — is this: are our fire departments, staffed by volunteers, equipped to put out electric fires such as the one that claimed the lives of four people Friday night?

A reading of newspaper stories around the country shows Teslas have caught fire in other communities and, like in East Marion, posed enormous challenges to first responders. In California last month, according to news accounts, a “Tesla car battery ‘spontaneously’ burst into flames” and needed 6,000 gallons of water to put it out.

Here is what a fire official in Massachusetts said last month after a car battery fire there: When a gas-powered car catches fire, first responders pour water on it and extinguish it. “We are going to knock that down with half a tank of water or a full tank in most cases,” the official said, according to news accounts.

Here is what the official said about lithium battery fires: “If those battery packs go into thermal runaway, which is just a chemical reaction, then they get super-heated and they run away. You can’t put them out. They don’t go out. They reignite. And they release tremendously toxic gases.”

He went on to say: “Flames can reach up to 2,500 degrees. And no matter how much water you put on the car; the batteries will reignite. This particular fire took firefighters hours and required more than 20,000 gallons of water to be put out.”

We are very lucky on the North Fork to have first-class fire departments, staffed by unselfish men and women who race to help those in need. The growth of electric cars — let alone battery storage facilities — means they will be challenged greatly. We can’t put them at a disadvantage. 

What kind of training will they need to fight these kinds of fires? What kind of specialized equipment?

These are the questions every department across the region will now be asking, keeping in mind the four lives that were lost Friday night in East Marion.