Exclusive: TX Chief Talks Challenges of Tesla Crash Fire

April 22, 2021
"I was impressed by the amount of heat ... that really destroyed the car in a relatively quick time," said The Woodlands fire chief about a recent fatal Tesla Model S accident.

Car fires are a common occurrence on the job for firefighters, and in many cases, they're routine calls that can be quickly handled. 

But the new generation of electric vehicles can create new challenges for crews, as a Texas department discovered over the weekend.

The Woodlands firefighters responded to a fiery crash involving a Tesla Model S on Saturday. The car had crashed into a tree and burst into flames, killing the two people inside.

"All the damage that you see in the pictures happened in the first few minutes of the fire," Chief Palmer Buck told Firehouse.com, adding that the fire didn't have a lot of additional fuel despite crashing in a grassy vacant lot. "I was impressed by the amount of heat ... that really destroyed the car in a relatively quick time." 

Even though the flames and intense heat flared only for a very brief time, leaving nothing but the vehicle's charred skeletal frame. Initial reports had said crews spent four hours extinguishing the fire, but Buck said they were able to put out the flames within four minutes of arriving at the scene.

But firefighters did remain at the scene, passively cooling the vehicle as the battery continued to reignite. The circumstances of the incident--the car's position blocking direct access to the battery and the bodies of the two occupants still inside--prevented them from immediately getting to the battery pack.

"Our problem was, we had an accident/crime scene that needed to be investigated--we still had two bodies in the car--we couldn't be aggressive with our firefighting efforts, so we just did some passive cooling," Buck said. "That went on for a couple hours, where we just ran a passive hoseline to it."

The car also had an "autopilot" driver-assistance feature, but it's not clear if it was engaged or if it contributed at all to the accident.

Although the department has dealt with incidents involving electric vehicles in the past, this is the first time it responded to a call involving a Telsa in which the main battery pack caught fire, and it required a bit of on-the-job learning. Buck said the department is currently putting together an after-action report on the incident, but he's not shy about passing along one reminder to other firefighters: The Internet can be your friend on these calls. 

"We were consulting the Internet to make sure we were doing the right thing," he said, adding that firefighters consulted Tesla's guidelines for 

"Don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't be afraid to go to Google. None of us can know everything," he said.

Despite the complicated challenges of Saturday's crash, Buck doesn't fault the advancement in technology. Adapting to these changes are all part of being a firefighter.

Just before 930 Saturday night TWFD and Montgomery County Hospital District were dispatched to a reported fire in the...

Posted by The Woodlands Fire Department on Sunday, April 18, 2021

"Technology is what it is. Our job in the fire service is to keep up with the latest technology," he said. "Understanding both in fires and extrications, you have to keep up with the latest trends so you can do the jobs you're supposed to do, so it's a never-ending battle to keep up. It's just accelerated in the past decade just how many things you have to keep up with."

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