E-bike, scooter fires in Ottawa prompt warnings about safety

Anna Cheung and Leduc smelled smoke and then saw the fire in their neighbour's carport. Leduc tried to put it out with a fire extinguisher, but the blaze was already too strong. (Kimberley Molina/CBC - image credit)
Anna Cheung and Leduc smelled smoke and then saw the fire in their neighbour's carport. Leduc tried to put it out with a fire extinguisher, but the blaze was already too strong. (Kimberley Molina/CBC - image credit)

An e-scooter fire in Ottawa has officials urging people to ensure any products with lithium-ion batteries meet Canadian electrical standards and are properly maintained.

Firefighters were called to a Cathcart Street row home complex in Lowertown around 9 a.m. New Year's Day after two larger scooters were engulfed in flames while under a carport.

"I didn't know what exactly was burning," said Jason Leduc, a neighbour who tried to douse the blaze with a fire extinguisher and a hose while his partner called 911.

"It was reaching to the ceiling and it was, I mean, a super hot fire," he said. "It was just an orange red hot blaze."

Kimberley Molina/CBC
Kimberley Molina/CBC

Thermal runaway

The cause of Sunday's fire, and whether it began with the e-scooters or if they were simply a casualty, is still being investigated.

Yet, as micromobility products — anything from e-bikes and e-scooters to hoverboards and e-unicycles — increase in popularity, there's been an increase locally in fires related to their lithium-ion batteries, with three such fires in Ottawa in the past three months.

"The scooters are everywhere," said Gerry Gill, division chief of safety for Ottawa Fire Services.  "People are using them for transport on city streets. They're using them for delivery. Some people are making a living with them."

They're often charged indoors, Gill said, which can increase the danger of "thermal runaway" — a chemical chain reaction that occurs when battery casings become damaged, lose their insulation and lead to short-circuits.

What comes next, Gill said, can occur just as quickly as throwing a cigarette into a wastepaper basket.

"The fire will spread faster than you can walk out of the room," he said.

Warning signs include bubbling, popping or hissing sounds, followed by a white vapour cloud coming from the battery and a sickly sweet smell.

It's not just the fire that can be deadly: hydrogen from batteries can mix with other chemicals to create hydrofluoric acid, said Gill, which is highly corrosive and can destroy tissue and bone.

Kimberley Molina/CBC
Kimberley Molina/CBC

The commission sent a letter to 2,000 manufacturers in mid-December outlining safety concerns with products that don't meet health and safety standards.

Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 28 of last year, there were at least 208 fires or or incidents where micromobility products overheated, its letter said. Nineteen people died, including a nine-year-old boy in New York, and at least 22 people were injured.

"There's no forced standard as of right now," said William Leishmen, who sells e-bikes at his ByWard Market shop Scooteretti. He said he's not surprised fires are on the rise.

Not just used in e-scooters

Lithium-ion batteries are found in many other products, including cell phones, laptops and electric toothbrushes. The New York City Fire Department said in an email to CBC it had investigated 320 fires resulting in 10 deaths and hundreds of injuries from products using the batteries during the same 2022 time span.

Gill said the best way to ensure a product remains safe is to follow the manufacturer's specifications, get it regularly inspected, not use an aftermarket charging cord and ensure the battery is kept at room temperature and receives decent air circulation.

Most of all, people should not make any modifications themselves without visiting a reputable repair person.

"As a consumer, what's really, really important is do your homework," he said.

"If it looks like a great deal or you're dealing with a small company and the price looks attractive, if they don't have any certifications, by all means please avoid those products. You're doing yourself and your family a favour.