Electric cars soaked by saltwater from hurricane go up in flames, Florida officials say

Hurricane Idalia ripped through Florida’s Nature Coast, leaving a path of destruction behind.

But, as the floodwaters recede, there is a new risk threatening owners of electric vehicles.

Two Tesla cars, one in Palm Harbor and another in Pinellas Park, seemed to spontaneously combust after becoming flooded with saltwater during the hurricane, Florida officials said.

On Aug. 30, Palm Harbor Fire Rescue responded to a Tesla on fire in Dunedin, according to the department’s Facebook post.

The car had become flooded with saltwater during the storm surge following Hurricane Idalia.

In Pinellas Park, on Aug. 31, a Tesla owner called a tow truck to move his flooded car, the Pinellas Park Police Department told WTSP.

When the car was on the back of the truck, it suddenly burst into flames, leaving behind a charred frame when the fire was finally subdued, the outlet reported.

“If you own a hybrid or electric vehicle that has come into contact with saltwater due to recent flooding within the last 24 hours, it is crucial to relocate the vehicle from your garage without delay,” Palm Harbor Fire Rescue said in the post.

Firefighters said exposure from saltwater can trigger spontaneous combustion of lithium-ion batteries, used in electric cars, but also found in some golf carts and electric scooters.

“Don’t drive these through water. PHFR crews have seen numerous residents out in carts and children on scooters riding through the water,” Palm Harbor Fire Rescue said.

Reminders of Hurricane Ian

In September 2022, Hurricane Ian brought massive flooding to Florida’s west coast.

In the weeks following the saltwater surge, there were 12 reports of electric vehicle fires in Collier and Lee counties, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

One of those fires grew so severe it burned down two houses on Sanibel Island, the administration said.

“According to the NHTSA, residual salt within the battery or battery components can form conductive ‘bridges’ that can lead to short circuit and self-heating of the battery, resulting in fires,” the USFA said. “The time frame in which a damaged battery can ignite has been observed to vary widely, from days to weeks.”

Aware of the risks

Tesla is aware of the potential fire risks following saltwater flooding in its vehicles and provides information about flooding on its website.

“Tesla wants to ensure you have the information you need to should there be a risk of vehicle submersion or if your vehicle experiences submersion in water,” the company says. “If you notice fire, smoke, audible popping/hissing or heating coming from your vehicle, step away and immediately contact your local first responders.”

Tesla also recommends moving any submerged car at least 50 feet away from all structures or combustible materials for fear a fire would spread.

McClatchy News reached out to Tesla about the specific fires following Hurricane Idalia and did not receive an immediate response.

Palm Harbor is about 25 miles northwest of Tampa.

Pinellas Park is about 20 miles south of Palm Harbor.

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