A Tesla sat in a junkyard for three weeks. Then it caught fire.

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A white Tesla Model S was sitting in a Rancho Cordova, Calif., wrecking yard earlier this month – after being badly damaged in a crash three weeks earlier – when it suddenly burst into flames, according to the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.

When the firefighters arrived, the electric car was completely submerged. Each time the blaze was momentarily extinguished, the car’s battery compartment reignited, firefighters wrote in an Instagram post. Firefighters and demolition workers tried to turn the car on its side to direct the water directly at the battery. But “the vehicle would still reignite due to residual heat,” the department wrote.

So they tried something else: they used a tractor to create a pit in the dirt, managed to get the car inside, and then filled the hole with water. That allowed firefighters to submerge the battery and eventually extinguish the fire, which burned at more than 3,000 degrees, fire department spokesman Capt. Parker Wilbourn told The Washington Post.

In total, it took more than an hour and 4,500 gallons of water for the dozen firefighters to put out the blaze, Wilbourn said — about the same amount of water used to put out a building fire.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening.

The department has yet to determine why the electric vehicle “spontaneously caught fire,” Wilbourn told the Post. He said it was the first time his department, which serves Sacramento County, has put out a Tesla fire.

But the department is gearing up to fight more, Wilbourn noted, especially as a growing number of electric vehicle owners install battery charging equipment in their garages.

“He’s a whole new animal for the fire department,” Wilbourn said. “We are always trying to understand the [electric vehicle] fires.”

The Sacramento case mirrors other electric vehicle fires in recent years and highlights the potential risks facing drivers, automakers and fire departments. In December 2020, a home in San Ramon, California caught fire after two Teslas caught fire while parked in a garage, The Post reported. One of the cars was on charge overnight when it caught fire and spread to a second Tesla. The garage caught fire and took at least six fire engines to extinguish.

As they slept, their Teslas burned out in the garage. It’s a risk that many automakers take seriously.

In Woodlands, Texas, two passengers died in April 2021 after a driverless Tesla left the road, hit a tree and burst into flames. It was the battery that ignited and burned for four hours, requiring 30,000 gallons of water to extinguish, The Post reported. Another Tesla Model S in Frisco, Texas spurted flames “like a flamethrower” after its owner pulled off the road upon hearing strange sounds coming from the car.

Such incidents have led some automakers to recall thousands of electric vehicles vehicles in case of fire. In December, General Motors recalled 141,000 Chevrolet Bolt electric cars after their batteries began spontaneously burning out. Audi and Hyundai have also recalled electric vehicles due to fire hazards.

It can take up to 24 hours to extinguish a Tesla battery and about 3,000 to 8,000 gallons of water “applied directly to the battery,” according to a Tesla Model S guide for first responders. Still, Wilbourn said the amount of water needed to put out battery fires could be closer to 20,000 or 30,000 gallons. Lithium-ion batteries found in electric vehicles can be difficult to extinguish because they continue to burn until all of the stored energy is released, Wilbourn said: “We’re basically fighting the release of energy.”

The Sacramento Fire Department said filling the pit with water to deal with the fire from the demolition site reduced the amount it would have otherwise needed. After the fire was extinguished, the white Model S had been reduced almost entirely to a pile of molten, burnt metal.

Wilbourn warned that if an electric vehicle catches fire, owners should not try to put it out themselves and should instead call the fire department. As more consumers switch to electric vehicles, fire departments “need to be prepared for what’s to come,” he added. “It’s going to be a challenge.”

Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.


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