Unless you spent the whole of October off-the-grid, you cannot have missed the news concerning a huge car park fire at Luton Airport. Travel news usually consists of cancellations, delays and strikes, never could the travelling public ever envisage that a car catching fire would create such chaos.

Firefighters battled for over 12 hours to control the raging inferno in the multi-storey car park, flights were diverted or cancelled and in the region of 34,000 passengers found their travel plans severely impacted.

The partially collapsed remains of the car park still contains most of the 1,400 vehicles caught up in the fire, recovery of which is a slow and dangerous job. Expert salvage contractors carrying out the work expect it to take more than a year to clear the site.

The unfortunate motorists who had parked their vehicles in the structure had to wait for some time to be told that it is unlikely that many, if any will be recovered intact and are therefore deemed to be write-offs.

The insurance situation is a nightmare as many of the owners of the vehicles have lost their no-claims bonus, and as the insurance companies are disputing over who is to blame it may be some time before all claims are settled.

It is not the first large car park in the UK to be severely damaged by fire, on New Year’s Eve 2017 a fire engulfed a multi-storey car park on King’s Dock in Liverpool. No one was seriously injured but more than 1,000 vehicles were destroyed. Nearby buildings had to be evacuated as the temperature of the fire reached 1,000 C.

There have been several smaller car park fires all over the world and as car numbers increase there is always a need for more multi-storey car parks. The problem is that cars are getting bigger and car parks are aiming to get as many vehicles in as possible, which means they are allowing very little space between each vehicle. The fact that they are closer together allows any fire to spread more quickly.

Although the car in the Luton incident is thought to be a diesel, there is a new issue that has arisen due to the increase in electric vehicles. EVs contain lithium-ion batteries, which when subjected to excessive heat can create a chemical reaction that creates more heat which can ignite a vehicle and possibly cause an explosion, allowing the fire to spread rapidly to other vehicles.

The fire services approach to a fire in an EV vehicle is to allow a controlled burn, which means leaving it to burn itself out. Of course, when the vehicle is in a car park it needs to be extinguished as soon as possible to prevent fire spreading, this unfortunately requires double the amount of water and a lot more time to put it out compared to a non-electric vehicle. When burning an electric vehicle generates over 100 toxic chemicals that are potentially fatal to humans, therefore it is essential that anyone working to put out such fires has full PPE and breathing apparatus. There is the added concern that even when an EV fire has been extinguished there is a risk that the battery may re-ignite.

There may be a need for change going forward regarding the building of car parks. They should ideally be fitted with early alert alarms and sprinklers. The newly built Luton car park has been reported as not having a sprinkler system fitted, the Fire Protection Association considers that fitted sprinklers may have led to a more positive impact in this incident. 

Current data suggests that EV vehicles are no more likely to catch fire than petrol or diesel vehicles but when they do, they can be more of a challenge to extinguish. The installation of thermal imaging cameras would detect an early increase in temperature in EV engines. Safety specialists have also suggested installing fire-resistant barriers between parking spaces, this would be particularly beneficial with EV vehicles as it would reduce the spread of heat and fire.

The costs of implementing these measures will of course impact drivers but if safety recommendations are not acted upon it’s possible that the next car park fire may cost lives.