A December 19th three-alarm fire at the GM Factory Zero plant in Detroit and Hamtramck caused approximately $1.3 million in damage according to a new report, with destroyed EV batteries and other goods and equipment accounting for $1 million of the losses and $300,000 consisting of damage to factory buildings.
Crain’s Detroit Business obtained details of the monetary loss from the damage following a Freedom of Information Act request that put a detailed incident report into the hands of the news website’s writers.
Firefighters initially had trouble finding the fire inside Factory Zero, which covers 11.6 million square feet. Detroit Fire Department chief of fire prevention Dennis Hunter remarked on the need for “someone or a system that can tell us exactly where the fire is located so we’re not driving all around the plant trying to find the area.”
Once the firefighters located the fire, it took approximately seven hours for them to extinguish it. The crew used EV car fire blankets given to them by factory personnel as well as “copious amounts of water and foam” to battle the blaze, which had enveloped a stack of five pallets of EV batteries next to a loading dock.
Finally, the firefighters were able to remove the pallets from the building using several GM forklifts after being quickly instructed in their operation. The incident report says “some of the remaining battery packs did ignite and the others were continually ‘off gassing’” as they were removed from the building interior via forklift.
Every one of the 60 to 100 firefighters at the site was exposed to the vapors produced by the burning EV batteries. Once a lithium-ion EV battery ignites it begins to produce toxic vapor almost immediately, with hydrogen fluoride as one of the most dangerous byproducts. Hydrogen fluoride burns skin and destroys lung tissue, as well as quickly invading the human body, and unlike typical smoke is heavier than air, meaning it forms a layer near the ground that is difficult to avoid.
The Detroit Fire Department personnel used self-contained breathing apparatus, though notably the pulmonary effects of exposure to lithium-ion off-gas can take weeks to develop. One firefighter also slipped and fell during the firefighting effort, sustaining a moderately severe back injury requiring hospitalization.
The fire allegedly started when a forklift ran into a pallet of batteries and punctured several with its forks, causing them to ignite. Production of EVs quickly resumed at the factory, which was initially fully evacuated until the fire was brought under control. However, chief of fire prevention Dennis Hunter said there have been constant fire and emergency calls to Factory Zero since it started operation, whereas such calls to factories building ICE vehicles are extremely rare.
Hunter said the steady stream of calls is “taxing” to emergency workers and that the fire department is “working with [GM] to improve how they handle these EV batteries going into thermal runoff or catching fire” in an effort to reduce future blazes. He also spoke of the resource drain from repeatedly having “four, eight or 12 fire apparatuses at their location, depending on the size of the fire.”
GM spokeswoman Tara Kuhnen stated that not all calls to the local fire department are fire or battery related, and in some cases, the incidents were quickly contained without assistance from firefighters. She added, “we take each occurrence seriously with full investigations and appropriate actions to avoid future incidents.”