Electric bikes, scooters and skateboards with lithium-ion batteries can pose fire hazards if not charged properly. Image: City of Berkeley

Following a rash of fires sparked by lithium-ion batteries, city firefighters have issued a list of safety tips to help owners of electric scooters, bikes and skateboards — which have ballooned in popularity in recent years — to keep their mobility devices’ batteries from sparking toxic fume-spewing blazes.

Lithium-ion battery fires present particular dangers due to the toxic fumes they can release, which can spread quickly. On top of that, lithium-ion battery fires can go into “thermal runaway,” a self-sustaining feedback loop of heat that can keep a battery burning for hours or even days, according to the National Fire Sprinkler Association.

In March and April alone, firefighters in Berkeley responded to six fires sparked by mobility devices around the city and in a university dormitory. One fire alone, a two-alarm attack, caused an estimated $150,000 in damage.

A three-story home in the 3400 block of Haste Street caught fire on the afternoon of March 12. Everyone inside had gotten out and light white smoke was coming from the first floor. Firefighters found a smoking electric skateboard on the second floor, Dafina Dailey, the department’s spokesperson, said in an email. Nobody was injured, and no reported estimate of damage.

Firefighters went to a garbage fire at Harrison and 9th streets shortly after 10 p.m. on March 23, finding a trash can a mere 6 feet away from a building with an electric scooter inside. There was no structural damage to the building, but the fire did damage its paint job. There were no injuries, and “further investigation of suspicious circumstances is underway,” Dailey said.

Less than 12 hours later, at 9:11 a.m., firefighters rolled to an alarm at a university residence building in the 2400 block of Durant Street. “Due to the size and complexity of the building, six fire apparatuses were dispatched to the high-rise,” Dailey said. Firefighters evacuated the seventh and eighth floors and found a working fire sparked by an electric skateboard in a dorm room on the seventh. A building sprinkler had helped control the fire, and firefighters put out what was left. There were no injuries.

On April 18, an electric bike caught fire on a houseboat in the Berkeley Marina off the 100 block of Seawall Drive shortly after 9:30 p.m., Dailey said. They grabbed the bike off the boat and, managing to separate the battery, dunked the battery in water. There were no injuries.

The same night, just after 10 p.m., firefighters answered calls in the 1600 block of Kains Avenue. Callers reported that an elderly man lived in a house burning there, but firefighters did not find him there at the time, Dailey said. Nobody was injured in the two-alarm fire, which caused an estimated $150,000 in damage. Firefighters believed the source of ignition was a lithium battery, but an investigation is still open.

Then on April 27, firefighters returned to the 2400 block of Durant Avenue, this time to an apartment complex, finding smoke and flames coming out of the building’s third floor. “The fire was extinguished with the activation of two sprinkler heads directly above the fire location,” Dailey said, but on account of heavy smoke, the building’s third floor was evacuated until the sprinkler system was reset and the smoke cleared. Firefighters believed an electric skateboard battery had set off the fire.

Precautions for charging

The Berkeley Fire Department issued a series of tips to help device owners stay safe from battery fires:

  • Use the original manufacturers’ chargers, batteries and replacements
  •  Only charge devices for as long as it takes to charge fully — then disconnect them.
  •  Keep batteries away from extreme heat, cold and other flammable items while charging
  •  Isolate batteries from each other and other flammable or explosive materials to prevent chemical reactions
  •  Identify distressed batteries — swollen, dented or otherwise damaged — and discard them safely at a drop-off site, not in your garbage can
  •  Plug devices directly into outlets rather than into extension cords

The fire department warned that fires can occur spontaneously while lithium batteries are charging.

“An overheating battery might make odd sounds such as gurgling, sizzling, popping and hissing or release chemical or gassy fumes and odors,” according to the department’s advisory. Owners should watch for batteries that change size, shape or color, make odd sounds, become extremely hot, leak, or have odd odors, smoke, sparks or flames while charging.

The department advised that quickly evacuating the area and calling 911 is crucial when batteries catch fire.

“Electric bikes, scooters and other devices are important to building sustainable transportation in our community,” Fire Chief David Sprague said in a statement attached to the advisory. “As these and other devices become an increasing part of our lives, we want to be smart in how we use and take care of them.”

Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...