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E-bike fire on TTC subway was 'rapid and intense,' Toronto Fire says. Here's how it erupted

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A fire engulfed a subway train in Toronto Sunday afternoon and Toronto Fire says it is due to the failure of a lithium ion battery pack used in an electric bike.

Just after 3 p.m., police were called to Sheppard-Yonge Station in North York. A video of the fire shared on social media reveals thick, black smoke billowing out of the subway doors with bright orange flames swelling inside the train. Someone shouting, “Everybody, get out, get out, get out,” can be heard at one point in the background.

The owner of the e-bike, a man in his 30s, was treated by paramedics for his non-life-threatening injuries.

“Our Toronto Fire Services crews arrived quickly and were able to successfully control the growth and spread of this fire, and then fully suppressed the fire in short order,” Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg told reporters Tuesday afternoon, after thanking TTC staff for their quick handle on the situation guiding passengers to safety too.

HOW DID THIS FIRE HAPPEN?

The fire was caused by the failure of a lithium ion battery pack, which Pegg said occurred rapidly with it igniting “within seconds of the presence of visible gases being emitted from the battery.”

“This is common when lithium ion batteries fail, as they contain a significant amount of energy which is being stored in a small battery enclosure,” Pegg said.

“The battery failed and went into what is known as ‘thermal runaway,’ and shortly thereafter, ignited, resulting in an intense and aggressive fire.”

The specifics on how exactly the battery failed remains under investigation.

TRANSIT UNION EXPRESSES CONCERNS

ATU Local 113, a union representing 12,000 public transit workers in Toronto, said that while it was ‘fortunate’ the fire broke out while stopped at a station, the outcome could have been significantly different had it erupted while in a subway tunnel – especially since there was only one crew member on board.

“If this fire occurred in the tunnel, the operator would have been cut off from the passengers by the flames,” the union said in a release. “Assuming the operator was not overcome by fumes, they would have been able to evacuate themselves through the front of the train, but the passengers would have been left in a smoke-filled train unassisted by any trained personnel.”

Following this “near miss,” the union urges the TTC to reinstate two-person operation on Line 1.

HOW MANY LITHIUM ION BATTERY FIRES HAVE THERE BEEN IN TORONTO?

These kinds of fires pose an immediate risk to anyone in the area, Pegg said, with the city seeing deaths and critical injuries as a result.

Since 2020, Toronto Fire Services recorded one fatality.

In 2022, there were 29 fires in Toronto that stemmed from a lithium ion battery. Last year, the number of these fires nearly doubled, spiking to a total of 55. Two of the fires in 2023 were discovered at the same residential high-rise, just two weeks apart.

For context, there were more than 1,600 fires in Toronto in 2023, Pegg said. However, he called it a “mounting issue” and a “growing concern,” especially as technology advances.

“It almost always outpaces things like codes and standards and regulations. So, that’s why we’re trying to be part of the solution.”

HOW DO THESE TYPES OF FIRES HAPPEN?

“The majority of these fires involve micro-mobility devices such as scooters and e-bikes,” Pegg said.

Typically, the TFS Fire Chief said these fires can break out from one or more factors, including, but not limited to, tampering or modifying the battery or its charger, operating the device in an unsafe manner, or using an unapproved or uncertified battery not designed for its specific application.

“Toronto Fire Services is working in collaboration with the City’s Strategic, Public and Employee Communications team on the development of a comprehensive lithium ion battery safety campaign, which is now under development and being planned for launch in 2024,” Pegg said.

They also created and chair an external working group with 23 organizations, like Ontario Fire Chiefs, Transport Canada, Health Canada, among others.

HOW CAN THESE TYPES OF FIRES BE PREVENTED?

On Tuesday, Pegg provided some safety recommendations with regards to safe use of lithium ion battery powered devices.

“Only use batteries and charging cords that are designed and approved by the manufacturer for the device,” he said. “Do not charge a device under your pillow, on your bed or on a couch.”

Unplugging devices as soon as they're fully charged, storing lithium ion batteries away from anything that can catch fire, not exposing them to direct sunlight, and stopping use of the battery if there’s any odour coming out of it are other recommendations Pegg noted.

“If you experience a lithium ion battery failure or fire, use your home escape plan and call 911,” Pegg said. 

With files from CP24's Joanna Lavoie

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