As it turns out, the 16 Fisker Karma extended-range hybrids weren't the only new hybrid cars to catch fire in Port Newark, New Jersey last Monday on October 29, after being submerged in seawater during Hurricane Sandy.
In a completely separate incident during the storm, three Toyota Prius models, including a conventional hybrid and a plug-in hybrid, were also damaged by fire at Port Newark, according to a report from the LA Times.
Toyota confirmed the incident. "One Prius out and out burned, the others just kind of smoldered and got really hot," Cindy Knight, a Toyota spokeswoman told the New York Times (NYT), adding that the fire "likely started because saltwater got into the electrical system." The Prius that burned down completely was a plug-in hybrid model.
All in all, there were 4,000 Toyota vehicles parked at Port Newark during the storm, of which 2,128 were plug-in or hybrid models.
"These were definitely extraordinary circumstances," said Toyota spokesperson Cindy Knight. "Once the salt gets in there, it’s ready to do damage."
In the case of the Fisker Karma fires, a transportation research engineer who spoke to the NYT on the condition of anonymity said that despite the fact that lithium catches fire under water, it doesn't seem logical to have been the source of the fire as lithium is sealed securely inside the battery cells of the plug-in sports sedan.
"The fact that these cars have big batteries in them may or may not have contributed to the issue," said the engineer. "Any electrical system can short and cause a fire – it doesn’t need a high-voltage battery pack for that to happen."