2 hospitalized after wheelchair battery catches fire

Published: Nov. 23, 2022 at 5:32 AM EST
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (WDIV) - Firefighters in Michigan rescued two older adults from an apartment fire caused by an electronic wheelchair battery that went up in flames.

Fire Chief Mike Kennedy says the Monday incident at University Living, an assisted living community in Ann Arbor near the University of Michigan, could have easily been much worse. Two older adults suffering from smoke inhalation were rescued from the apartment and taken to the hospital.

“Very, very lucky. This easily could have been a double fatal fire because they were both very, very close to where this was at,” he said.

Firefighters say an electronic wheelchair’s lithium-ion battery was charging when it caught fire.

“So, basically, all lithium-ion batteries, it’s these individual cells, and this had what’s called the thermal runaway. And when these take off, it has explosive gas… And basically, this created a jet of flame that set the chair on fire and also set the apartment on fire,” Kennedy said.

The apartment sustained about $200,000 in damage. Several residents were also displaced because of water damage.

Kennedy says it’s possible the battery could catch fire again, even days after it went up in flames the first time. The fire department has to store these types of batteries carefully in protective polymer and inside a $300 bucket.

The lithium-ion battery issue isn’t new, and it’s not going away. Kennedy says the fire department is trying to warn people.

“It’s all across the country. New York has had several fatal fires because of it, but a lot for them has been e-scooters and e-bikes. This is one of the first ones I’ve heard of an electronic wheelchair,” Kennedy said.

He recommends that while charging a lithium-ion battery, at least one person is awake, and the device isn’t in an exit path.