Memorial grows for victim of fatal battery explosion in Vancouver as officials warn of risks

Vancouver fire officials warn of a spike in deadly fires caused by lithium-ion batteries as a memorial grows to a man killed in a battery explosion.

On Saturday, an explosion in the one-room occupation (SRO) Empress Hotel on the Downtown Eastside left one dead and two injured.

Firefighters said a man in a second-floor suite had an overcharged e-bike battery, which then exploded. He then fell from the suite window and died in an alleyway.

Residents of Downtown Eastside identified the victim as Shayne Charleson, a resident of the low-income hotel near Hastings and Main Streets.

Officials say he is the seventh person to be killed in a fire in Vancouver this year — and the fifth to be caused by a lithium battery fire.

“This is a problem and this isn’t just a problem in the city of Vancouver. This is something that we’re starting to see across North America,” Vancouver fire chief Karen Fry said.

“And Vancouver, if we’re in trend with where we are now… we’re in big trouble.”

An old-fashioned hotel sign, vertical in nature, reads 'Hotel Empress'.  It is attached to a red brick building.  A facade visible just below the vertical sign also bears the hotel's name.
Charleson died when he fell from a second-floor window after a lithium-ion battery explosion, which officials say was caused by an overcharged e-bike battery. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Fry said Vancouver had a total of five deaths from lithium battery fires last year. The city has already matched that number for six months in 2022.

The chief also pointed out: stats released last week by the county’s fire department commissioner, who showed an “alarming” rise in the number of fires requiring emergency response in 2021.

She urged the public to be more careful with battery-operated devices, as well as not to overcharge or tamper with batteries.

Batteries very common

Lithium-ion batteries are: the most common type of portable battery sold today. They are used in everything from cell phones and laptops to electric cars and bicycles.

Matthew Trudeau, public information officer for the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service, said lithium-ion batteries can cause fires that are very difficult to extinguish due to a “thermal run-off” caused by the chemicals in the batteries.

“They become very problematic for some types of fire extinguishers,” he said. “A water extinguisher usually won’t do too much about it.”

VIEW | Experts talk about safety risks with e-bike batteries:

Worries raised over e-bike batteries after hotel explosion

Concerns have been raised about the safety of poor-quality e-bike batteries after an overcharged or defective battery became the suspected cause of a deadly hotel fire in Vancouver.

Fry and Trudeau said that in densely populated cities like Vancouver, more people are buying electric vehicles, such as e-bikes, scooters and unicycles to come around.

But while an e-bike was the cause of Saturday’s explosion at the Empress, Fry and Trudeau said any battery-powered device or charger can start a fire if not handled properly.

They said residents should aim for legitimate chargers and devices, certified by an accredited safety authorityand may not repair them without safety precautions.

“I hope the BC province and the fire commissioner’s office… will do some more public education and do research on lithium battery deaths,” Fry said.

“We always know that cooking and smoking are our biggest risks. But this is a new risk.”

Victim remembered fondly

The victim of Saturday’s explosion, Shayne Charleson, was remembered by a friend as a “gentle, laid-back man.”

Evan Collier said that Charleson loved skateboarding and crafts. The two had known each other for more than eight years, according to Collier.

“He was a quiet man…if it broke, he could fix it,” he said. “He’d give it back to you before you could say it couldn’t.”

A whiteboard held with two small wheels.  It has a photo of a man wearing a blue hat and black shirt staring at the camera.  The photo is surrounded by scribbled memories and messages.
A memorial to Charleson in the alley next to the Empress. He is remembered as a quiet man who loved skateboarding. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The cause of Saturday’s explosion is still under investigation, but the fire service said it was likely an accident.

Collier said bike sellers in the Downtown Eastside often tamper with batteries on e-bikes and e-scooters before selling them, leading to risks for the buyer.

“These guys are powering up bikes with fake homemade batteries,” he said. “Mixing Lithium with Dry Cell and Acid.”

Fry said fire inspectors go to the Downtown Eastside daily to educate building operators about safe fire practices and the risk of e-bike overloading, especially within SROs.

She would like to see regulations prohibiting e-bikes from being stored in units to reduce the risk of fatal battery explosions.

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