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Why Tesla’s electric cars can burn hours after a crash


A car will often catch fire after a crash — no matter the type of vehicle.
A car will often catch fire after a crash — no matter the type of vehicle.

Image: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In a car crash, things can get fiery quickly — it doesn’t matter if you’re driving a Tesla Model X electric car or a traditional gas-fueled Honda Civic. 

That’s what happened in a fatal crash in Florida over the weekend. A man speeding in a Tesla Model S lost control and drove into the median and some trees. His car burst into flames, and he died. 

In an email statement, a Tesla spokesperson said, “We are deeply saddened by this accident and our thoughts are with everyone affected by this tragedy. We have reached out to the local authorities to offer our cooperation. We understand that speed is being investigated as a factor in this crash, and know that high speed collisions can result in a fire in any type of car, not just electric vehicles.”

Car fires after a crash are all too common: The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) puts crashes as the reason for 3 percent of car fires for any type of vehicle. But with an electric vehicle, the car can burst into flames hours after the initial blaze. The NFPA puts out training materials for electric and hybrid vehicles for this very reason. In the Florida crash, which happened at around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, the Model S kept burning in the police tow yard into early Monday morning. 

The same thing happened with another Tesla Model S in December, in Silicon Valley. The car burst into flames again hours after an initial car fire was put out. The driver was not harmed.

After the Florida crash, Davie Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Robert Diferdinando told the Sun-Sentinel, “We have a problem where the car keeps catching fire because the battery pack itself hasn’t drained yet,” He went on to explain that the battery still has power after the fiery crash and keeps sparking flames.

Tesla is well aware that this is how electric vehicle batteries behave after a crash. In its online emergency response guide for first and second responders, it clearly states, “battery fires can take up to 24 hours to extinguish” and warns about potential “re-ignition.” 

The guide offers tips and methods to safely extinguish the flames. In the Florida incident, authorities were in touch with Tesla representatives, who relayed helpful information to put out the fire once and for all.

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