Battery-powered transportation soared in popularity during the pandemic, but the devices have since become ticking time bombs Firefighters and investigators examine the aftermath of a fire at an e-bike shop in New York City, June 20, 2023 © AP / Bebeto Matthews

Lithium-ion batteries used in electronic bikes and scooters caused more fires in the last two months than in all of 2019, the New York City Fire Department’s (FDNY) chief fire marshall has told the New York Post.

The FDNY recorded 30 fires involving lithium batteries in 2019, a number that more than tripled to 104 in 2021, and soared to 268 last year. In the first two months of 2024, 31 such fires had already been recorded, with the blazes causing 26 injuries and one death, according to figures cited by the Post.

Indian journalist Fazil Khan was killed last week when a lithium ion battery caught fire in the hallway of a Harlem apartment. Residents on higher floors were trapped inside the building, with 18 other people suffering injuries.

Chief Fire Marshall Daniel Flynn told the newspaper that e-bikes and scooters soared in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, when unemployed people bought the devices to work in “gig economy” delivery jobs.

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“People bought these devices some three years ago, and now they’re aging,” Flynn said, pointing out that shoddy repairs and replacement of individual battery cells – rather than entire battery units – increase the risk of deadly fires.

“We’ve seen people try to fix it or modify it themselves, go to shops from unauthorized vendors or take it on themselves to replace the old batteries,” he said. “We tell people not to go with the cheapest option and seek out the manufacturer directly.”

Lithium-ion batteries can catch fire if they overheat, or if the body of the battery is punctured. Lithium can burn violently on contact with air, and once started, lithium fires are impossible to extinguish with water, as the burning chemical simply uses the oxygen contained in water as fuel.

The FDNY has formed a Lithium-ion Task Force to combat the problem, and officers regularly inspect businesses that offer to repair individual battery cells.

“They kill people, they have killed people, and they will kill more people if businesses continue to operate in this manner,” Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh warned last month.