Australia has an EV fire problem. It's not cars.

Updated: Jul 17

Randy & Jerry are a couple of sun-kissed beach dudes passionate about affordable electric skateboards & on a mission to share their love of low-emission fun.


Their glossy website sells inspiringly-name e-skateboards for hundreds of US dollars that are promoted by beautiful people on Instagram & a former pro skater – a modern take on the decades-old deck.

But Randy & Jerry don’t actually exist. Like much in the online world, they’re a chimera to aggressively sell micromobility to Australians who are taking these lithium battery packed & powered products into their homes.

Not Randy or Jerry. Random e-skater via surfertoday.com


Take a popular form of transport & add batteries


Bikes, scooters, skateboards & unicycles with added electricity are becoming increasingly popular, & are a common sight in stores & on city streets. For ease, we’re going to refer to them as ‘light electric vehicles’ or LEVs.


The lithium batteries used in these products should be safe to use, charge & store in your home, in the same way our mobile phones & laptops are.


But, for a variety of reasons, LEVs are killing people & burning down homes on a near daily basis around the world.

An unknown incident involving multiple LEVs in New York, US

On 23rd June, a mother & her four children died in Buenos Aires after inhaling toxic gases produced when a charging e-skateboard in their apartment caught fire. Thirty one other residents, including her husband, were treated for inhalation.


12 days earlier, Canadian Shayne Charleson fell from a second storey window to his death after a charging e-bike battery in his room exploded, prompting Vancouver fire officials to release a warning about a ‘spike in deadly fires’ caused by LEVs.


On the 21st June, a London resident in a block near the infamous Grenfell Tower ‘feared he was going to die’ on the 12th floor when a charging e-bike caught fire.


This is just one of a uncounted number of LEV fires leading to a fully involved house fire in the UK, with one video capturing an unusual suck-in/suck-out of smoke through the front window of a house in Leytonstone earlier this year, as the batteries ignite one after the other in a process called thermal runaway (more on that later).


An ongoing series of severe LEV fires – primarily e-scooters - have made headlines in India for several months. We could count over 40 separate incidents since March, several involving multiple e-scooters in transporter trucks, stores & warehousing. Most notably, over 100 electric rickshaws & ‘two-wheelers’ created an inferno in a Delhi carpark on 8th June.



Australia is at the start of an LEV fire spike


22 year old father-to-be, Blake Whell, was asleep next to his heavily pregnant partner Tomeka Willis when the e-scooter battery he’d left to charge overnight ignited & exploded in their caravan.


Blake threw himself over Tomeka, & in the process suffered severe burns that later took his life at the Royal Brisbane Hospital. Tomeka, herself critically burned, gave birth to a baby boy via emergency caesarean.


It’s the first Australian death directly linked to a LEV lithium ion battery. And, in my opinion, it’s only sheer luck we haven’t seen more.


Well, sheer luck, working smoke alarms, & heroic efforts by emergency responders, like this save by the team at Fire & Rescue NSW who entered a smoke-filled home to rescue three young people from a house fire, that was started by an e-bike fire on the 26th June in Lidcombe, NSW.



Firecrackers & a shower of sparks in Bacchus Marsh


One e-scooter fire in a residential garage in the Victorian town of Bacchus Marsh is interesting, two in a month indicates a problem.


A social media-focused homeowner intent on creating a good video to show his mates, captured his e-scooter igniting in his garage in early May. While we recommend only using your phone to call triple-0, before evacuating & not re-entering the building, the footage presents a great learning opportunity.


It came to us from the Bacchus Marsh Fire Brigade who contacted our project after attending a CFA webinar we presented (we'll revisit this first incident later).


Roll on a few weeks, & I received another email from the Bacchus Marsh Second Lieutenant with the words ‘It happened again!’.


This time - only 20 days after the first - it was an e-skateboard, sold to a Marsh local by the phoney e-dudes Randy & Jerry, which had ignited in the owner’s lounge room. He threw it outside where it ‘shot battery cells all over the driveway’.


Thanks again to Bacchus Marsh for the images. Note the cylindrical cells lying on the ground that were blasted through the battery pack casing.


Here's the thing; I strongly believe the Bacchus Marsh firies experience is a forecast of what’s facing Australian first responders as LEV adoption accelerates.


How often are LEV battery fires occurring?


This is the challenge - the real number of LEV battery incidents is still a little hidden from us.


Nationally, emergency responders are being paged to them, but this risk is emerging & fast moving, so some are not aware they’ve dealt with a lithium battery fire.


Unless it’s recognised & reported as such, it’s difficult for emergency agencies & our project to track. Additionally, any national tracking of LEV fire incidents sits outside the scope of our current funding.



Battery packs & fires – the basics


Knowing how a battery pack is constructed, & how it can disintegrate into a fireball, really helps emergency responders manage EV incidents.


Battery pack construction: Most LEVs have a small lithium ion battery pack of cylindrical battery cells, typically around 2-3 kWh. In all types of electric vehicles, think of kWh like your petrol tank – it’s how much ‘fuel’ is available for momentum.

Image: https://www.montaguebikes.com

The cells look similar to typical AA batteries, but bigger. These are connected into a group & protected in a metal or hard plastic case.


In many LEVs, the battery pack can be removed from the frame & charged while sitting on the kitchen bench.


Thermal runaway: All lithium ion battery fires start with what’s called thermal runaway. But it’s not a fire, it’s an unstable chemical reaction. We've written an explainer here.


In short, when a battery cell is abused it can short circuit. This means the positive (anode) & negative (cathode) touch, causing a breakdown of the cell structure, which produces a lot of heat, very quickly.


The heat inside the cell builds up until the pressure becomes too much & the cells pops, venting out heavy metals & gases under pressure. This appears as a dark, then lighter, cloud of vapour.


This vapour cloud contains a mix of toxic & flammable gases, primarily hydrogens. Many of these gases can cause respiratory distress &/or asphyxiation.

Once one cell has started to heat up & release gases, others in the pack will follow, in a kind of domino effect.


This is thermal runaway. Once it starts, it’s very difficult for emergency responders to stop it.



The early warning signs of thermal runaway


All of this is occurring in the battery pack, which is difficult for us to see.


But our experience with passenger EVs shows there are a few early warning signs that things with LEVs are about to get hot.

Thermal runaway early warning signs for electric vehicles (all types)

You may hear: bubbling, popping, hissing sounds of the battery cells reacting to heat, bursting & venting gases under pressure.


You may smell: what’s described as a ‘sickly sweet’ smell, something the US based ESA call ‘cherry bubblegum’. We obviously do not recommend you sniff the stuff though, even in the name of scientific endeavour.


You may see: what we call off-gassing; the gases venting from the cells & forming large vapour clouds. Early testing by our project mentor Professor Paul Christensen indicate even a very small lithium ion battery of 1 kWh can produce a whopping 6000 litres of toxic vapour clouds.


The problem is, by the time you see, hear or smell these signs it’s pretty much too late when dealing with LEVs. Best practice from responders I've spoken with is to get the hell out of the way & try to protect exposures as best you can.



Let's go back to Bacchus


Which brings us back to Bacchus Marsh's original incident & that video we mentioned.


Watch: Headphones, turn volume up & please note:

  • 00.05 flares of directional flame as a cell bursts & vents flammable gases

  • 00.08 & 00.09 more flares - thermal runaway in full swing

  • 00.20 a loud pop, a 'whooshing' noise & light from yet another flare of flame

  • 00.32 popping & sparks - possible reaction with water / heated cell debris becoming projectile

The owner is able to suppress flames, & incidentally cool the small battery pack, relatively quickly, however the time taken can vary depending on battery state of charge & other factors.


The most important takeaway here, as this video clearly shows, there is significant risk of fire spread from LEV battery fires inside buildings.

(A quick thank you to the owner for supplying this video to Bacchus Marsh fire brigade, we're sure it was an upsetting experience & we hope everyone is OK.)



Vapour cloud explosion (yes, it can get worse)


The large vapour cloud that forms during thermal runaway is toxic & flammable. And, it can develop very quickly.


In most cases, it ignites, creating that jet like flame – the ignited gases escaping under pressure from the battery cells.


But we’re increasingly seeing vapour cloud explosion, particularly with LEVs in enclosed spaces. As evidenced in this worrying video from 2018 in Shanghai, China.


It's vital that emergency responders understand this. We’re no longer smoke diving in BA, we’re in the middle of a possible vapour cloud explosion.


Here we go again - delayed or secondary ignition


As with passenger EVs, it is possible for a LEV battery to catch fire two, three or more times.

Any cells not destroyed by fire are still energised; we refer to this as stranded energy. There’s currently no way to de-energise these cells.

Where do you even start? E-bikes & e-scooters imported & stacked floor to ceiling in a private home, Sydney, May 2022. Image via Daniel Fish, FRNSW

In some cases, these cells may go into thermal runaway hours after the initial fire. Or for the cell to be damaged enough for it to slowly heat up, but only catch fire later on.


For these reasons, any fire damaged LEV should be separated & stored away from others post-incident.



What’s causing LEV battery fires?


There are a range of reasons, but largely it boils down to this; substandard quality lithium ion battery cells supplied to LEV manufacturers rushing products out to a red hot market (no pun intended).


Poor/faulty battery quality: The Indian Fire Explosives & Environment Agency found LEVs involved in fires typically used ‘lower-grade materials to cut costs’. Sneakily, high grade batteries were submitted for the testing required to enable selling into the market.


Higher quality batteries are used by reputable Australian suppliers, reducing risk significantly. However, the LEVs bought online with a click of the PayPal button aren’t regulated (yet).


Poor battery management: Passenger EVs contain a sophisticated battery management system (BMS) with active & passive thermal controls. LEVs don’t, as there’s simply no space for one, & rely on passive air cooling.


Again turning to India, a summer heatwave has no doubt exacerbated that issue. Battery cells operate at average temperatures of around 30 degrees, with a run of >40 degree days across the country.


Overcharged: In the Brisbane case, the couple has bought a second-hand e-scooter that didn’t come with the manufacturer supplied cable. An incorrectly rated cable was used, that overcharged the battery, leading to thermal runaway.


Easy damage: By their very nature, LEVs are kicked up & down curbs, in & out of potholes. Battery abuse leading to thermal runaway is simply more common.



Emergency response guidance for LEVs


Prior to sale, passenger electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla, Nissan & Hyundai, develop an ISO 17840 standard emergency response guide. Great, even though some can be vague on EV battery fire management, often saying ‘just use a lot of water’.


But...there’s no such thing as emergency response guides for LEVs.


To check this, we contacted four of the leading electric bike suppliers in Australia to see what they could tell us.


We hit a polite brick wall with three, but Brisbane-based e-bike manufacturer Cleverly were happy to talk through their self-imposed high standards around battery quality & keen to continue the conversation to enhance emergency responder safety.


So