With fuel prices showing no signs of a major drop, people are turning to electric bikes and scooters powered by rechargeable batteries as an alternative to gas-guzzling vehicles.
With that freedom from the pumps comes a new hazard – exploding batteries.
Fire departments in Vancouver and New York City have issued public bulletins this year to warn people of the potential danger of charging lithium ion batteries - also used in phones, toys and computers – and especially those used to power e-bike and e-scooters.
In Vancouver, from Jan. 1, 2021 to Aug. 22, 2022 there were 34 fires caused by recharging batteries which led to five deaths, seven injuries and $12.2 million in property damage. In June, a man living at Hotel Empress on East Hastings Street died after an e-bike battery exploded and he fell through the window of his second-storey room.
Steve Feeney, chief fire prevention officer for Prince George Fire Rescue, says the batteries most likely to cause problems are aftermarket products, different from the type that comes with the bike. When placed in a charger that delivers an incorrect voltage sometimes the charging process doesn’t automatically stop when the battery is fully charged and it overheats. The cells, when overheated, can leak electrolyte fluid which, if ignited, can create a blowtorch-like flame or violent explosion.
“We don’t see a lot of e-bikes here because of our (northern B.C.) climate, but in big cities they’re everywhere and when the battery dies they’re fairly expensive to replace so people have been purchasing aftermarket batteries that probably aren’t compatible with the charging system of the bike itself and they malfunction during the charging stage,” said Feeney. “It actually ruptures and blows up and spews fire all over the place.”
Fires caused by e-bike battery explosions have yet to crop up in Prince George but the colder weather means people are spending more time indoors using portable heaters, Christmas candles and gas appliances that are creating hazards which keep firefighters busy.
The onset of cold weather this fall resulted in a rash of house fires in Prince George, two of which completely destroyed the buildings.In the first three weeks of November PGFR was called to six structure fires.
With Christmas only a month away and people spending more time close to home during the holiday season, Feeney says its critical that every home has well-functioning smoke alarms. He’s seen enough tragedy in his 25-year career to know they can make the difference between life and death. The few hundred dollars it takes to buy smoke detectors for each room and hallway is a wise investment but homeowners should know they don’t last forever. Most are good for 10 years and they should be tested at least every six months. If they are not hard-wired, the batteries should be replaced at least one a year.
Feeney recommends buying an interconnected alarm system so that if one alarm is activated they will all go off. That lessens the risk of someone on the second floor of a house not hearing a beeping smoke alarm installed in the basement.
“If you’re awake, you’re going to see hear or smell a fire, something will trigger your senses, but if you’re sleeping, without that smoke alarm, you won’t wake up half the time,” said Feeney, who also recommends carbon monoxide detectors in hallways at every level.
Planning and practice key to escaping fires
Fire drills aren’t just for school kids and workplaces. Feeney says people need to plan escape routes from their homes in the event of a fire and actually practice making an emergency exits. He lives in a two-storey house and has a roll-up self-rescue ladder that attaches by hooks to a window opening and everybody in the house knows how to use it. He also keeps baseball bats in all the bedrooms and has told his kids to use them to break the windows if they have to.
“If it’s a first floor start or basement start and you don’t have your doors closed the smoke come up to the top of the second floor and by the time you find out what it is when you wake up in the middle of the night you may not be able to get out of your bedroom door, Feeney said. “In the wintertime, lots of windows freeze shut and you’ve got to have a means to get out. If you haven’t planned for that you’re asking for trouble.”
Barbecues/kitchens can easily become blazing infernos
Feeney has attended numerous barbecue fires that could have been prevented had the homeowner kept their outdoor grills away from vinyl siding, deck railings, eaves or branches. Pots left unattended on a stove are also a common cause. He can remember one kitchen fire that started when a bag of groceries was placed on top of a stove and the burner was accidentally turned on. In that case, the female occupant barely survived the fire.
“People get sidetracked when they’re cooking, they get a phone call or their kids starts to cry and they just leave the task and their kitchen’s on fire,” said Feeney.
More people are use space heaters when it’s cold outside and that can lead to trouble. At one of the fires Feeney attended, a man had been using a parabolic dish heater to dry the carpet underneath a laundry room. It was left unattended and the heater melted the plastic legs of plastic sink, which fell on top of the heater and started the house on fire.
There’s a safe way to dispose of oily rags
Oil-based stains can create a fire hazard and Feeney remembers a firefighter several years ago whose house caught on fire after he’d been using rags to apply linseed oil to wood. An oily rag produces heat as it dries and if left crumpled in a pile it traps oxygen and can spontaneously combust without a spark. Oily rags should be dried flat to prevent heat buildup or doused in water in an empty paint container.
Christmas safety tips you can use
More cooking/baking fires occur at Christmas thn any other time of the year. Candles are more commonly used during the holiday season and incandescent lights can also spark blazes. Feeney attended a fire early in his career that started when a dog knocked off a lamp that was left laying on top of combustible material. Wood fireplaces used during the holidays to burn Christmas wrapping paper can result in a chimney fire if there’s a buildup of creosote, which can accumulate quickly if the wood is wet or there’s not enough ventilation. Keep those chimneys clean.
If you prefer setting up a live tree in the house, don't keep it around too long. On average, nearly one-third of Christmas tree fires occur in January. Tree fires are less common than in decades past because of LED lights that don’t produce heat, but if you plan on bringing a natural tree into the house it’s vital to keep it well-watered, as this YouTube video produced by the National Institute of Standards and Technology vividly demonstrates.
Extinguish those cigarette butts
Smoking is still a leading cause of house fires and Feeney knows of fires that started when people butted out cigarettes that were left smouldering in plant pots containing peat moss. Fires from smoking in bed often lead to injury or death because people are lying on the immediate source of the flames.
Smoke inhalation can be deadly. It only takes a couple breaths to be overcome, especially when caught in room in which nearly all contents are made of plastic or synthetic material that produces black toxic smoke when ignited. If a fire has advanced beyond what could be smothered with a fire extinguisher, Feeney says there’s no time to waste.
“That’s what extinguishers are for, if you find a fire in it’s earliest burning stages you put the fire out, but if it’s billowing black smoke coming out, you don’t want to breath that in,” said Feeney. “Your Number 1 goal is to get you and your family out of that house. I know pets are part of the family, but you don’t go back in for a pet. People have, and have perished because of it.
“If something is really burning you don’t have much time. I think you have under two minutes to get out and there’s no delay in it, you get out as soon as you can.”
How to buy time to escape a fire
Smoke that has nowhere to escape pressurizes, which can force the smoke and toxic gasses through small openings into other rooms. If you’re trapped in a room, block the bottom of the door with towel or piece of clothing to keep the smoke out long enough to escape through a window. Feeney says people should close all room doors when they go to bed at night to help contain a fire that starts while you’re asleep.
This YouTube video demonstration from the Wayne Township Fire Department in Indianapolis shows the difference in intensity of a fire as it burns a couch made with natural fibres compared to fire in a couch made with synthetics.
Block heater fires can be prevented
A couple weeks ago in a Prince George driveway the block heater in a brand-new car started a fire which destroyed two vehicles and started the side of the house on fire. Feeney said PGFR has already attended two block heater fires this fall. Before plugging in you should inspect the length of the cord all the way to the heater and look for cracks in the insulation and make sure no solid or liquid that will burn is anywhere near where the heater sits. Don’t put anything on top of a rolled-up cord; the disbursed heat can be enough to start a fire.
Block heaters draw between 750 and 1,000 watts of electricity and cords should be at least 12 gauge, especially if the vehicle is more than nine metres from the GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupt) outlet needed to connect the cord.
More fire safety tips are available on the National Fire Protection Association website.