CALIFORNIA CITY, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — On Saturday, Ediel Ruiz and his partner, Edith Parker, took a trip to California City to visit Parker's family following her graduation from USC.
Ruiz said he received a notification on his phone that the car alarm to his Tesla Model 3 was going off. He went outside to see his car covered in smoke. He opened the back door and was met with a wall of flames.
The first thing to melt, he said, was his 4-month-old's car seat.
We had that, the stroller, some formula in there... All her graduation stuff completely burned up," Ruiz said.
No one was in the car, but Ruiz says the couple had plans to drive to Bakersfield that day.
We were going to go to Bakersfield to go eat at Texas Roadhouse. For whatever reason, her grandparents cancelled and we didn't go. Luckily, it didn't happen while we were driving," he said.
Ruiz immediately called California City Fire Department, and they were able to extinguish the fire quickly.
The car was insured through Tesla, but Ruiz said he couldn't get ahold of anyone until the following Monday. When Tesla Roadside Assistance sent someone to pick up the car, Ruiz said the representative didn't realize how bad the fire was. After seeing the car, the representative told Ruiz he wasn't equipped to move it, since ash would go everywhere if transported on the freeway.
After all this, Ruiz is now in a rental and says won't be able to get a new car until around October.
This is not an isolated incident.
Electric vehicle (EV) fires are rare, however, they can be hard to fight. Robert Swaim, founder of HowItBroke.com says that in a gas vehicle, water needs to be put on top of the vehicle to put the fire out. With EVs, because the battery is between the wheels at the bottom, the car has to be cooled from the bottom.
Electric cars have different battery chemistries, and over the years, Tesla has continued to improved its product. Swaim said earlier models of Tesla Model X and S were reported to ignite more because changes in chemistry seem to result in less fires in their newer cars.
EVs within two years of being new seem to have more of a propensity to spontaneously ignite, he said.
When we get into that two years within being new, we find that the fires, almost half of them happen when a car is either parked or on a charger — not involved in an accident," Swaim said.
There's also a chance the car could reignite due to thermal runaway, when the battery overheats.
Cal City Fire Department Public Information Officer David Orr says they don't see many cases like this, however, the department has specific training for their crews.
"When we suppress the fire and think we have it out, we usually use our thermal imager camera to maintain to see if we can see if the vehicle is cooling down properly within the battery, so we don't have that thermal runaway," Orr said.
Kern County Fire Public Information Officer Andrew Freeborn said the county also hasn't seen many cases, but that could change as more people in the county go electric.
Right now, electric vehicles are still a minority of what's on our highways. But we still have to take all the incidents that we're on very cautiously. We look at the different training programs that we have within our department that help us identify electric vehicles and understand how we can safely extinguish them," Freeborn said.
And it's not just Tesla. Reports of electric KIA and Chevrolet models spontaneously igniting are also on the radar.
Swaim said, there are warning signs that people can look for. Whooshing and whistling sounds can be an indicator, as gas escapes from the battery when it's beginning to overheat.
Still, the number of non-electric car fires far outweighs the number of EV fires, he says.