It’s 7:30 a.m. on a rainy January morning, and smoke is pouring out of a house in East Vancouver. Neighbours are horrified to learn that the fire has killed three members of the same family, including a little boy.
One day later, a fire starts in an apartment building in the West End at around 6 a.m. Neighbours take videos of flames roaring out of a third-floor window; they soon learn that one man has died and another was injured.
Six months later, there’s an explosion in a single-room occupancy hotel in the Downtown Eastside at 7 a.m. A man struggling to escape the fire falls to his death from a window.
All these fires were caused by lithium ion batteries, the type of power source used in e-bikes, motorized scooters, laptops, cellphones and many other products.
Vancouver Fire Rescue Services is raising the alarm about a spike in fires and fatalities caused by batteries. In all of 2021, there were a total of five deaths from fire in the city. But in the first six months of 2022, seven people have died because of fires, and five of those deaths happened because of fires caused by lithium ion batteries.
Since 2016, there has been a 500-per-cent increase in fires caused by lithium ion batteries in Vancouver. Battery fires have also been on the increase across B.C. during the last 24 months, amid a 119-per-cent increase in fire deaths over the past two years.
“We’re in big trouble,” Matthew Trudeau, a public information officer with the Vancouver fire department, told reporters on June 13. “We need to educate, we need to protect and we need to save lives.”
Trudeau emphasized that Vancouver Fire Rescue Services isn’t opposed to e-bikes or motorized scooters. But as the devices become more popular, fire departments across North America are seeing more blazes caused by batteries.
Lithium ion batteries can become very dangerous when:
- Batteries are overcharged;
- Different chargers than the ones manufacturers provide are used;
- People make their own batteries or combine components;
- Batteries are tampered with or damaged;
- Lower-quality batteries are purchased, often from online sellers.
In Vancouver, the two fires in January happened while e-bikes were being charged, said fire Chief Karen Fry. Water and even water-based fire extinguishers don’t work to put out fires caused by batteries, leaving the only option to get out immediately and call 911.
While fire departments and experts in Canada have started to discuss the problem and suggest an update to the national fire code, other jurisdictions have already taken action.
The New York City Fire Department responded to 70 fires caused by batteries in the first five months of 2022, compared to 18 battery-caused fires in all of 2021.
In response, in April, New York updated its fire code to include language on e-bikes and e-scooters, said Brian Godlonton, the fire commissioner for British Columbia.
“Their new code now requires e-bike and e-scooter equipment to comply with the standards of the Underwriters Laboratories, as well as enhanced fire protection measures where there are six or more e-bikes and e-scooters being charged or stored,” Godlonton said.
“You can see New York has taken a really positive change just recently and I think we’ll start to see more of that happening at the local government level.”
Underwriters Laboratories is a consumer safety testing and certification company. Mike Pasquali, director of the Canadian Electric Bicycle Association, said consumers should look for batteries that are manufactured by a recognized brand, such as LG, and are UL-certified.
The Canadian Electric Bicycle Association offers a course on how to fix and diagnose e-bikes, training Pasquali says is badly needed as electric bikes become more popular.* E-bikes and scooters have been promoted as a green transportation solution — a way to make riding a bike more accessible and an alternative to using a car.
They’ve also become an economic lifeline to delivery workers who rely on e-bikes to make a living. However, many may not be able to afford to replace a $150 charger or a $1,000 battery, or charge their bike anywhere other than their homes. People can also be tempted to use a friend’s charger, which might look like it will work fine, but could be providing more power than their battery is equipped for.
Pasquali said it’s not difficult to find videos online showing how to repair or make your own battery packs, but only people with the proper training should be repairing batteries. It’s also common to find battery components for sale in venues such as Facebook Marketplace or Kijiji, or homemade batteries that sell for much less than the $600 to $1,000 price tag for a brand-name battery.
“Someone’s buying individual pieces of batteries, making them, then making a profit on them,” he said. “They could be using very low-quality cells, just to be profitable.”
If components like the battery management system inside the battery are low-quality, that can also cause a fire, Pasquali said.
When battery fires happen, Pasquali said he’d like to see more information released about what actually caused the fire, and details such as whether the wrong charger was being used.
Godlonton said people need to be aware that it’s not just e-bikes and e-scooters that are at-risk: lithium ion batteries are also inside devices such as laptops and cellphones.
In fact, Health Canada says phones now top the list of fires caused by electronic devices.
Common safety advice is to charge phones and laptops on a hard surface, not on a bed or a couch. But Godlonton said he recommends not charging your phone in the room where you sleep at all.
Godlonton also wants to remind people to make sure smoke detectors are working properly. Less than half of the homes that had fires in 2021 had working smoke alarms.
Battery fires are becoming more common in Vancouver’s single-room occupancy hotels, aging buildings with small rooms that are already at high risk for fires. Trudeau said he’d like to see residents and building operators store e-bikes and scooters inside a separate room that is sprinklered, although he acknowledged that could be a challenge in the buildings because of security and lack of space.
But as the fatal fires across the city have shown, residents in every neighbourhood need to be aware of the risks.
“I would like to see us even make moves on not having electric bikes within your units, within places where you sleep,” Fry said. “We do need to do something, and we're going to be asking the province to help us with this as well.”
* Story updated on June 23 at 2:10 p.m. to correct that the Canadian Electric Bicycle Association offers a course on how to fix and diagnose e-bikes, not on how to repair lithium ion batteries.