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Shelter Island Reporter editorial: For firefighters, the challenges are mounting

On the night of Feb. 24, two cars collided on Route 25 in East Marion. One car was a Ford Explorer, the other an electric Tesla, which is powered by 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 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, the result of the intense heat generated by the lithium battery when it caught fire.

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

Shelter Island Fire District Commissioner Keith Clark, who has been a firefighter for many years, addressed the issue with the Reporter, noting he was not speaking in his role as a commissioner. Mr. Clark said electric vehicles pose dangers of fires that are not only difficult to extinguish, but electrocution is another possibility with the vehicles.

“There’s not only a danger to those who are drivers and passengers in an electric vehicle, but to first responders trying to extinguish a fire,” he added.

A central question that must be 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 in East Marion?

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.

After a car battery fire in Massachusetts last month a fire official said, “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’re fortunate on Shelter Island to have a first-class Fire Department, staffed by unselfish men and women who interrupt their lives to help those in need. The growth of electric cars 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 on a winter night in East Marion.