Tesla car battery likely caused devastating house fire in Northern California, investigators say

ByMichael Finney and Randall Yip KGO logo
Thursday, August 19, 2021
Tesla car battery is the likely cause of devastating house fire
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An investigation by San Ramon Valley Fire narrowed the cause of a house fire down to either the 2013 Tesla battery or the vehicle's electrical system.

SAN RAMON, Calif. -- A couple from San Ramon in Northern California burned out of their home when their Tesla burst into flames in the garage wants answers from the Fremont automaker. So far they haven't gotten any.

The roar of the fire can be heard in the early morning darkness. A loud exploding sound is followed by screams of, "The house is on fire!"

The Vindums woke their neighbors at 5:30 a.m., fearful winds could kick the flames into the surrounding area.

Video captured by a neighbor's Ring security camera recorded the scene.

The couple escaped out of the back of the house from their downstairs bedroom.

"Had we been upstairs, I think we would not be standing here today," said Yogi Vindum.

Despite the shock, he still managed to shoot video of the fire with his phone.

Minutes earlier, he had gone back in to the burning home to locate his wife, but the intense flames and thick smoke forced him out.

To his relief, he spotted his wife Carolyn safe and sound shortly after.

"I went back in to look for you," Yogi can be heard saying on the video to Carolyn.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she responded.

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At first Yogi suspected the fire had started in his upstairs office where his computers are always powered up. He soon discovered that wasn't the case.

"As soon as I saw flames outside, I knew it was in the garage. You can see flames coming from both cars... and when I saw my phone later that the charging had been interrupted, not completed," he said.

He's referring to two text messages sent to him by Tesla.

The first said: "Charging interrupted at 5:25 a.m. with battery at 180 miles."

Moments later, a second message from Tesla: "Car alarm has been triggered."

A photo shows what was left of his two Teslas, which were both destroyed in the garage.

An investigation by the San Ramon Valley Fire Department narrowed the cause down to either the 2013 Tesla battery or the vehicle's electrical system.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation into the batteries used in the 2012 and 2019 Models S and X. That investigation, which began 22 months ago, is still ongoing.

Jason Levine of the Center for Auto Safety says unfortunately, such investigations can drag on a long time.

"They also have a bad habit of doing is not making transparent what's going on," said Levine. "So it's actually rather unclear. Can the agency not get to the bottom of what's causing these fires? Do they know and they haven't had a chance to share that information? Is Tesla being obstructive? We just don't know and that's sort of the problem."

The agency says it does not comment on ongoing investigations.

Tesla did not return numerous emails and phone calls from the 7 On Your Side team at ABC7's sister station KGO.

Yogi would like Tesla to replace both of his 2013 and 2017 vehicles, plus provide him free lifetime charging, which he had under a previous promotion.

He says Tesla declined, saying he already received an insurance payout.

However in a 2013 letter from Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk, he writes, "We will be amending our warranty policy to cover damage due to a fire, even if due to driver error. Unless a Model S owner actively tries to destroy a car, they are covered."

Tesla isn't the only automaker of an electric car with battery issues. The batteries of both the Chevy Bolt and the Hyundai Kona are also under recall.

"Tesla has seemed to put itself on a different path that generally objects to government oversight," Levine said.

"Frankly disappointed that we have not been told why it happened and what Tesla is doing to make sure it doesn't happen again," said Yogi.

His insurance company, Liberty Mutual, has taken over the investigation from San Ramon Valley Fire. It too declined to comment.