Bicycle batteries cause four fires in three weeks at DTES

Patricia Hotel, Aneki Housing for Women, Nora Hendrix Place and the building at 566 Powell St. suffered damage on the Downtown Eastside

A Vancouver nonprofit housing provider says four of its buildings on the Downtown Eastside have sustained fire damage over the past three weeks due to problems associated with people charging lithium-ion batteries for electric bikes.

No injuries were reported in the fires, but in some cases tenants had to be temporarily relocated due to smoke, structure and water damage to the buildings, which house low-income people.

The spate of fires worries Janice Abbott, executive director of the Atira Group of Women Serving Services, who said it is the first time the agency has been affected by fires caused by the batteries, which also power scooters and other devices such as phones. cell phones.

“We have a fire every four days in our portfolio, but these four in the last three weeks are the first that we know were caused by lithium-ion batteries,” Abbott said, noting that the agency recently banned batteries. of tenants’ rooms, but acknowledged the policy is difficult to enforce.

“It’s better than doing nothing, but the reality is that we’re unlikely to be able to enforce it 100 percent because we’re not going to search people’s backpacks every time they come in. That would probably be a human rights issue at some point.”

A suite caught fire Wednesday at Aneki Housing for Women on Powell Street due to an electric bike charger. Photo Mike Howell

‘These things just explode’

The most recent fire occurred early Wednesday in a suite at Aneki Housing for Women at 535 Powell St., where a guest of the tenant had been charging an electric bike. Staff were seen removing the charred and twisted bicycle from the building later in the morning.

Abbott’s information from staff was that the guest was not charging the bike’s original or standard battery, which is consistent with Vancouver Fire Services’ concern that fires occur primarily because chargers are being modified or batteries have been altered from their original state.

In June, a man identified by residents as Shayne Charleson died after a lithium-ion battery exploded in his room at the Empress Hotel near Main and Hastings streets. Charleson fell to his death in the alley below.

Capt. Matthew Trudeau, public information officer for Vancouver Fire Services, said there have been a total of five fire deaths this year related to batteries. Trudeau didn’t have all the locations by the deadline, but he said the trend worries firefighters.

“We’re seeing this a lot in SRO where people are modifying these chargers, and then when you get that wrong voltage, it causes overheating, shorting, and then these things just blow up,” Trudeau said, noting that firefighters have reached out to operators of households. about the dangers of batteries.

“So people are tweaking chargers, but we’re also seeing a lot of failures in lithium-ion batteries in general.”

The other three battery-related fires reported by Atira occurred at the Patricia Hotel at 403 East Hastings St., a small housing complex at 566 Powell St. and the Nora Hendrix temporary modular housing building at 258 Union St.

The fire in Patricia was reported Monday night. Four people were temporarily relocated from seven rooms due to damage to the building, which has been home to many former residents of the Strathcona homeless encampment.

A fire broke out in a suite at the Hotel Patricia on Monday night. Photo Mike Howell

Tenant ‘shaken’ by fire

In the Aneki fire, the tenant was moved to a vacant space in the building until her room could be cleaned and was deemed safe to occupy. Electricians were at the building Wednesday to inspect the suite for damage.

Lux Electric’s Taylor Bawn said there was minor damage to the area where the bike was being charged and to the electrical panel. Water damage, Bawn said, was evident on the floors below the second-floor suite.

“The water tends to get everywhere when they turn these things off,” he said from the sidewalk outside the building. “There’s a lot of standing water in the hallways and things like that.”

Bawn added: “I saw the tenant and she seemed fine. Just a little shaken from having to move all of her stuff, which got wet.”

Bawn said he and his co-worker, Max Chambers, responded to more calls recently in Vancouver and Surrey related to lithium-ion battery fires, primarily in modular homes and single-room occupancy buildings.

“I would say mainly because of the scooters and the bikes,” Bawn said. “I don’t know if the batteries get so hot that they melt the charger and then start the fire, or what’s going on. But yes, it’s definitely these [electric] bikes and scooters that are causing it.”

The shift in recent years to people using electric bikes and scooters is noticeable throughout Vancouver, particularly along the bike paths. Chambers noted that he just bought an electric scooter, but said he’s not worried about it exploding or catching fire.

“It’s a top of the line Segway Ninebot and Segway has been around for a long time, and I trust their company and hope my apartment doesn’t burn down,” he said.

198 SRO fires in Vancouver this year

Abbott said his staff has been investigating whether steel boxes would be available to charge the batteries, noting that bikes and scooters are a mode of transportation for some tenants.

It also suggested that the City of Vancouver provide safe and secure storage for electric bikes and scooters, particularly in old, crowded, wood-constructed buildings for single-room occupancy; Vancouver Fire Services says there have been 198 SRO fires this year, though no data was available on how many were battery-related.

Meanwhile, the entire Atira building has posted large fire department signs warning of the dangers associated with batteries, even warning people to make sure they use the battery designed for the device and not to modify it.

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