On an early February morning almost two years ago, San Francisco firefighters raced to save four people from a fire in the Fillmore District.
The first crew responded to the scene at 7:17 a.m., just three minutes after receiving a report of an emergency. By then, it was almost too late. Firefighters rescued two people from a window while two others were retrieved from inside the home. The blaze involved an e-scooter battery in the living room of 1212 Turk St., and it would last more than two hours and cause a quarter-million dollars worth of damage to the property, according to an incident report by the fire department.
But the actual cost of the blaze was far steeper. Emergency responders saved two adults and one child, but 64-year-old Richard Lee would later die due to smoke inhalation.
Since 2019, San Francisco has seen a substantial uptick in the number of fires caused by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The blazes have become more commonplace alongside the rise of personal e-scooters, e-bikes and other “micro mobility devices” that use these batteries, which are often stored and charged inside people’s homes. A startling number of injuries and deaths connected to the batteries in recent years—particularly on the East Coast—has prompted new laws to be introduced at all levels of government, including a proposal now being discussed by San Francisco supervisors.
“This is a whole new frontier,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who authored legislation that is currently being reviewed by the city’s Land Use and Transportation Committee. “It’s an evolving field, but we’re working to get it right.”
If passed, Peskin’s ordinance would amend the city’s fire code to restrict how the lithium-ion batteries that power e-scooters, e-bikes and many other modern electronics can be charged and stored in San Francisco.
Going back to 2013, The Standard reviewed every fire that the San Francisco Fire Department responded to that was associated with a rechargeable battery. The data, which runs through early December 2023, is imperfect because the department does not have a specific designation for lithium-ion battery fires. However, the numbers clearly show battery-involved fires in San Francisco have more than tripled in recent years.
Between 2013 and 2018, San Francisco had an average of 13 fires per year associated with rechargeable batteries, according to the fire department. In 2019, that number doubled to 24 before surging to 36 the following year. In 2022, San Francisco set a record with 58 fires involving battery fires. The fire department logged 41 battery-associated fires in 2023 through Dec. 6.
The rise of lithium-ion battery fires has concerned firefighters across the U.S.
“They do make the fire much harder to combat,” said Robert Rezende, a battalion chief for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. “The fire is more aggressive; it creates a more toxic atmosphere.”
New York City has seen an even bigger surge in fires involving rechargeable batteries than San Francisco, and the consequences have been more grave. By mid-November of last year, New York had seen 17 people die from fires related to electric vehicle batteries in 2023. One fire in 2022 injured nearly 40 people and led firefighters to dangle outside of a Manhattan high-rise to rescue a trapped woman.
Over the last decade, incidents in which a rechargeable device was mentioned in a San Francisco Fire Department report accounted for more than $10.6 million of property damage, 13 injuries and one death, according to data reviewed by The Standard.
This past Thanksgiving in San Francisco, a lithium-ion battery pack from an electric bike caused a fire at 35 Woodward St. in the Mission, inflicting $150,000 worth of damage and exposing two residents to smoke inhalation, according to the fire department data.
In June 2020, a person working on his electric bike accidentally started a fire after puncturing the battery with a screwdriver. Faulty wiring on an electric bike caused a downtown fire in June 2022, and just three months later, a lithium-ion battery malfunctioned while charging, igniting a fire in the Outer Sunset.
Rechargeable battery fires make up a small share of all fires in San Francisco, with the 58 fires associated with rechargeable batteries in 2022 representing less than 1% of the nearly 8,000 fire incidents the department responded to that year. However, landlords in the city have started to revise their lease agreements due to the risk lithium-ion batteries can pose.
“This is an issue that has been on the radar of the association for a little while now, and it is definitely a concern for our members,” said Charley Goss, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Apartment Association, which has roughly 3,000 members who own 90,000 rental units citywide.
Legislation to balance the concerns of property owners and tenants who need access to low-cost transportation options led state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D–Burbank) to introduce SB 712, a bill that proposed to make it illegal for landlords to prohibit tenants from storing and charging up to one device unless they provided renters with a secure, long-term storage option. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed that bill to start this year, but some landlords in the city are still requiring tenants to obtain renters’ insurance as a hedge.
Goss acknowledged that enforcing the provisions of SB 712 in a lease agreement is “basically impossible,” which is why some San Francisco Apartment Association members are now putting the stipulation for renters insurance into lease agreements.
“Nobody is in the hallway monitoring if someone is bringing in a scooter and whether or not they’re charging it,” Goss said.
Peskin said he has revised his legislation after speaking with e-bike retailers and micro mobility sharing companies Lime and Bay Wheels, the latter of which is owned by Lyft. Another round of revisions is expected after Tuesday’s meeting, but the focus of the legislation is to create an informational public outreach campaign and toughen storage requirements for lithium-ion batteries in residential properties.
“Ultimately, I think the industry is going to evolve where people who have been dumping inferior products onto the market are going to get winnowed out over time,” Peskin said. “There is even talk in the next few years that lithium-ion batteries will be replaced by sodium-ion batteries. That’s where the industry seems to be going, so this is a stop-gap measure until the industry figures it out.”