Lithium-ion battery fires: Exploding battery fires the new home fire menace

Headshot of John Flint
John FlintThe West Australian
Damage to a room caused by a lithium-ion battery on charge in an adjacent room.
Camera IconDamage to a room caused by a lithium-ion battery on charge in an adjacent room. Credit: DFES Media/DFES Media

Exploding lithium-ion batteries are causing devastating house fires at an increasing rate as West Australians splurge on e-bikes, scooters, skateboards, drones, power tools and other rechargeable items.

The number of lithium-ion battery fires in homes and buildings has jumped every year, more than doubling in the past four years, from 23 in 2018-19 to 47 in 2021-22.

The potential for catastrophe was laid bare on Saturday when a Queens Park warehouse burnt to the ground. Firefighters suspect lithium batteries that were charging in an office area sparked the blaze.

Some homes have also been burnt to the ground and occupants have suffered horrific injuries. Fire chiefs in WA are worried that people are blind to the danger.

And they warn the threat is set to increase as people continue to buy new and popular products that are powered by these batteries.

An exploded battery from a power tool in a workshop.
Camera IconAn exploded battery from a power tool in a workshop. Credit: DFES Media/DFES Media

Peter Jones, Manager of the Fire Investigation and Analysis Unit at the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, said: “We are attending an increasing number of fires where lithium-ion batteries have been determined to be the cause of fire.

“It is expected that these figures will rise as a greater number of batteries are introduced, and the batteries in circulation begin to age.”

He said once a battery explodes, it can end up metres from where it was charging and a small fire can engulf an entire home in just minutes.

A Beeliar house was completely destroyed last April when a dive torch that was charging exploded.

“There was an incident in a Wangara storage unit about six months ago where a male was severely burnt and a female received some burns as well,” Mr Jones said. “A death happened over east recently and there’s been many deaths worldwide (from lithium-ion battery fires).”

 Ruins of a storage unit in Wangara caused by battery fire in an e-scooter.
Camera Icon Ruins of a storage unit in Wangara caused by battery fire in an e-scooter. Credit: DFES Media/DFES Media

With many of these fires starting in garages, where most homes don’t have smoke detectors, occupants often have little warning.

“The concerning thing is the intensity of the fires and the destruction caused before anybody discovers a fire,” Mr Jones added.

“By the time the occupant hears a crack of something falling or a smoke detector’s gone off in their hallway, the fire is too developed put out. It’s just ‘get it out of the house as best you can’.”

He said batteries in high-energy devices like power tools, scooters and skateboards had more potential to cause a big blaze.

And it wasn’t just a case of batteries exploding from over-charging.

Damage to a room caused by a lithium-ion battery on charge in an adjacent room.
Camera IconDamage to a room caused by a lithium-ion battery on charge in an adjacent room. Credit: DFES Media/DFES Media

“If they haven’t been charged for a long time, they don’t like that,” he said. We’ve seen every possible variation … we’ve been to fires involving only a battery.

“They don’t even have to be on charge to actually go, they can just break down.”

He said even good brands of batteries had been the culprits in house fires, though cheaper ones bought online were more susceptible.

“In fire investigations, we look for basically spent cartridges,” he said “The lithium-ion component flies out the middle. So we look for those shells, which shows that there’s been a thermal runaway, which is the chemical reaction that develops that you can’t stop once it has started.

“My recommendation is have a smoke detector in every room of the house (including the garage). We would like to see that because then it means that every bit of your house is covered.

“Also keep the batteries well away from flammable materials. I put my lithium-ion batteries in a metal toolbox in the garage and I lock it. If they explode, they’re not going to hit anything flammable.

“For larger items, like e-bikes and scooters, charge and store them in a safe area away from flammables, buy a reputable brand and follow manufacturer’s instructions.”

Mr Jones said smoke detectors had mostly dealt with the threat from chip pans, candles and cigarettes which used to spark house fires. “We’ve covered off all the other risks, but this is a whole new cause of fire we didn’t see ten years ago,” he said.

Lithium-ion battery fires caused four deaths in the United States last year.

E-scooters were banned from London’s transport network last December following a spate of fires on underground trains and buses from defective batteries.

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