Vancouver firefighters have issued another stark warning about lithium ion batteries, in the wake of a fatal fire at a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel on the city’s Downtown Eastside.
Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services says the fire on the second floor of the Empress Hotel was caused by an exploding battery.
It was the seventh fire-related death in the city this year. Of those seven, five have been linked to lithium ion batteries — including a house fire in East Vancouver in January that killed a child, their mother and their grandfather.
“If we’re on trend with where we are right now, we’re in big trouble,” Fire Chief Karen Fry told media Monday. “Last year had five deaths in total. And this year five of our deaths have been related to batteries.”
Lithium ion batteries are becoming increasingly common in Canadians homes, and are found in devices ranging from e-bikes and e-scooters to mobile phones.
Capt. Matthew Trudeau, the fire service’s public information officer, said the city has documented a 500-per cent increase in fires linked to lithium ion batteries since 2016.
The fires have generally been related to the charging, care, handling and maintenance of equipment, with some user error, he said.
“We have seen a couple of fires where overcharging has been the problem. In these batteries we’re seeing a thermal runaway effect that can cause chemically inside them which make it extremely dangerous and hard to extinguish.”
In particular, firefighters are concerned about people modifying their equipment, or using damaged cables or chargers.
Lithium ion batteries are safe, Trudeau said, so long as people are using quality equipment and exercising caution.
“That includes making sure everyone operates and charges these with care, charges them in accordance with manufacturers’ recommendations, they repair and replace their cords, their charging equipment and their batteries with approved devices and avoid the use of any kind of knock-off devices,” he said.
Fry recommended that people buy electronic devices from a reputable dealer in Canada or that is CSA certified. She said cheaper equipment purchased online is of particular concern.
She said the city’s fire service was meeting with BC Housing to look at ways to reduce risks in SROs. It is also looking for help from the province on safety measures, such as a possible ban on keeping e-bikes inside residential units.
“These are all preventable deaths,” she said.