Kent hot spot for Tesla electric car fire news

A Tesla Model S catches fire Tuesday, Oct. 1 in Kent on the Willis Street off-ramp from southbound Highway 167. - COURTESY PHOTO
A Tesla Model S catches fire Tuesday, Oct. 1 in Kent on the Willis Street off-ramp from southbound Highway 167.
— image credit: COURTESY PHOTO

The city of Kent became the hot spot for national news this week because of the first Tesla electric car fire.

When firefighters from the Kent Fire Department Regional Fire Authority first arrived at the car fire at about 8:21 a.m. Tuesday on the Willis Street off-ramp from southbound Highway 167, they focused on making sure no one was in the car and on putting out the fire.

They didn't realize initially the car was a Tesla Model S, the fully electric luxury sedan that sells for more than $70,000.

But when a passerby posted a video of the Tesla fire on YouTube - well - news spread like wildfire. The fire also caused a decline in the California-based Tesla's market value.

The phone rang like crazy all week for Kyle Ohashi, spokesman for the Kent Fire Department. He received calls from the New York Times and many, many others with inquiring minds.

"We've had inquiries from every national news organization, car magazine and research group - everyone but Tesla themselves," Ohashi said during a Friday phone interview. "There's a lot of interest because this is a first-time thing. I don't know if Tesla expected it to happen."

Rob Carlson, of Bellevue, the driver of Tesla, was alone in the car and escaped injury. Tesla posted Carlson's email about the incident on its website Friday in which he agreed with the company's following assessment of the accident:

"All indications are that your Model S drove over a large, oddly shaped metal object which impacted the leading edge of the vehicle's undercarriage and rotated into the underside of the vehicle ("pole vault" effect)," said Jerome Guillen the vice president of sales and service for Tesla, who reports directly to Elon Musk, Tesla's CEO. "This is a highly uncommon occurrence."

Carlson told firefighters he struck some kind of object on the freeway, according to the Kent Fire Department incident report. He pulled off the freeway because he began to have problems. He safely left the car before it caught on fire near the bottom of the off-ramp.

Tesla gave Carlson another Tesla as a loaner car.

"I am still a big fan of your car and look forward to getting back into one," Carlson said.

Musk, on Friday, posted a statement on the company's website blog about the fire.

"A Model S traveling at highway speed struck a large metal object, causing significant damage to the vehicle," Musk said. "A curved section that fell off a semi-trailer was recovered from the roadway near where the accident occurred and, according to the road crew that was on the scene, appears to be the culprit.

"The geometry of the object caused a powerful lever action as it went under the car, punching upward and impaling the Model S with a peak force on the order of 25 tons. Only a force of this magnitude would be strong enough to punch a 3-inch diameter hole through the quarter inch armor plate protecting the base of the vehicle."

Musk, who pointed out the fire was contained to the front part of the car, concluded his posting with the following statement:

"For consumers concerned about fire risk, there should be absolutely zero doubt that it is safer to power a car with a battery than a large tank of highly flammable liquid," Musk said.

Musk also said that the firefighters were incorrect to puncture the metal firewall in the top of the battery's protective metal plate.

"When the fire department arrived, they observed standard procedure, which was to gain access to the source of the fire by puncturing holes in the top of the battery's protective metal plate and applying water," Musk said. "For the Model S lithium-ion battery, it was correct to apply water (vs. dry chemical extinguisher), but not to puncture the metal firewall, as the newly created holes allowed the flames to then vent upwards into the front trunk section of the Model S.

"Nonetheless, a combination of water followed by dry chemical extinguisher quickly brought the fire to an end."

Ohashi said firefighters made the right move to puncture the firewall.

"I would agree with him (Musk) if it was early on but the fire was on," Ohashi said. "When it was burning it was important to get to the battery. It was not a bad thing. It allowed us to put out the fire."

Ohashi said the Tesla fire was believed to be the first electric car fire that Kent had responded to. He said firefighters respond to a lot of gasoline-powered car fires each year.

"It's a common thing," he said.

But the electric car fire reacted differently than others. Firefighters used water and thought they had the fire out when the battery flamed up. They used dry  chemical to finally extinguish the fire.

"They pulled the (front) pan out for access and punctured holes to extinguish it," Ohashi said. "Water, foam and dry chemical are the only three tools we carry. In this case, water and dry chemical were successful."

Ohashi added that the Tesla website has details for firefighters about how to extract someone from the car after a crash. He said the company might want to add information about fighting a Tesla fire as well.

"They never had a fire but that ice has been broken," he said.

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