Did Electric Vehicle Batteries Contribute to a Cargo Ship Fire?

Tara Malenfant
Mar 10, 2022 · 4 min read
We all know the future of the auto industry relies heavily on the success and innovation of electric vehicles. The benefits of owning an eco-friendly car are endless, and we often don’t consider the possibility that the car we’ve spent our savings on could be dangerous and extremely flammable.
What if these fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly cars pose an unexpected threat to our safety?

A mid-Atlantic blast exacerbated by electric vehicles

In mid-February 2022, the 650-foot-long Felicity Ace carrying about 4,000 cars across the Atlantic caught fire. The cargo ship was traveling from Germany to the U.S. Fortunately, all 22 crew members were able to be evacuated off the ship without harm.
Though not blamed for starting the fire, batteries from luxury cars on board like Porsches and Bentleys may have intensified the blast by keeping the fire alive. Lithium-ion fires burn at higher temperatures, even known to melt the pavement below.
João Mendes Cabeças (captain of the nearest port in the Azorean island of Faial) said the cause of the fire was unclear, but specialty equipment was needed to extinguish the blaze, Insider reports.
A big part of the fire that kept burning involved the batteries from the crammed electric vehicles on board. According to Insider, “the vessel remain[ed] smoldering off the coast of Portugal's Azores islands.”

Like a trick birthday candle

Though electric vehicle fires are rare, when they do happen, they’re much more difficult to put out. Because of the way EVs are powered, when the cars get into serious accidents, their damaged energy cells trigger longer burning fires. And unfortunately, many first responders are caught off guard.
On April 17, 2021, in Houston, firefighters responded to a crashed Tesla Model S that killed two people and was still on fire. NBC News reported that “[the firefighters] extinguished it, but then a small flare shot out of the bottom of the charred hulk. [They] quickly put out those flames. Not long after, the car reignited for a third time.” Electric vehicles have also been known to re-ignite days later.
It was after these heroes consulted Tesla’s guide for first responders that they realized they needed much more water and manpower to defeat the high-voltage battery pack. Eight firefighters, seven hours and 28,000 gallons of water later, the blaze was finally doused. 
Sound like a lot of water? It is. It’s enough to serve a fire department for a month or the average household for two years. For reference, it usually only takes 300 gallons of water to extinguish flames from an internal combustion car. Aren’t these vehicles supposed to be eco-friendly?

First responders lack essential training for EVs

Though many firefighters have banned together to share knowledge about these destructive blazes, not enough have received proper training for these types of incidents. EV education is also tricky, due to frequent industry changes and recalls.
Time is of the essence for first responders to understand the key differences between handling an electric vehicle vs a gas-powered car. According to NBC News, IHS predicts “that 1 in 10 cars are expected to be electric by 2025.”
In fact, in late 2020 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published a report that criticized the inadequacy of all first responder guides from manufacturers. Electric disconnection mechanisms (cut loops) are deemed useless in most crashes because at that point they’re often damaged as well. And vehicle-specific details for suppressing these dangerous fires are surprisingly absent.
For many fire departments, it's now “standard procedure to dump the entire EV into a container filled with water to ensure the fire is well and truly out,” according to Driving. Difficult to do on the Felicity Ace—where there are no dousing containers, and retrieving one of the tightly packed cars to toss into the ocean is near impossible. It seems like the only way to cool down the inferno would be to sink the ship.
Unfortunately, the Felicity Ace did sink to the bottom of the ocean while it was being towed about 250 miles from the Azores Islands. A salvage team had finally extinguished the flames before watching it descend. 
Automakers won’t reveal how much inventory they lost and the ecological damage to the ocean will be staggering. According to the New York Daily News, “The ship could have held more than 2,000 tons of fuel, 2,000 tons of oil, and nearly 19,000 tons of cargo, including the lithium batteries.” The Portuguese air force and navy will monitor the scene.

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