Caught on Camera: Teen's Laptop Bursts Into Flames in Family's Living Room

The family's home security cameras captured their laptop catching fire not once, but four times

The stunning home surveillance video shows two teenage boys sitting on a couch, playing video games and eating pizza, when suddenly a laptop bursts into a ball of fire just three feet away.

"Thank God it didn't explode in my face," said 18-year-old Devon Johnson, describing the fireball that engulfed his Dell laptop, while it was charging on the couch in his parent's Thousand Oaks home last month.

There have been hundreds of reports of laptops, cellphones and other consumer electronics catching on fire in recent years. But rarely are these spectacular fires caught on video. The Johnson's home security cameras captured their laptop catching fire not once, but four times.

Devon had plugged in his four-year old laptop to charge, and a few hours later smoke began shooting out the side of the computer before it burst into flames. The fire burned a large hole in the sofa and destroyed the computer.

But the Johnson's consider themselves lucky. Devon and his friend Andrew were supposed to have gone to the movies with Devon's parents at the time the laptop was charging.

"Had he gone to the movies, our house would have been gone," said Tori Johnson, Devon's mother.

And had Devon been using his laptop on his lap at the time of the fire, Tori said, "It would have been devastating. He would have been burned."

According to the family's video, the fiery ordeal went on for nearly seven minutes.

After Devon blew out the first fire, his friend Andrew unplugged the laptop. They then took it outside and put it on a table. Three minutes later, while unplugged, the computer caught on fire again. Devon once again blew out the flames. And, after another three minutes passed, flames shot out of the laptop for a third time. This time, Devon used a fire extinguisher to put out the blaze.

Thinking the fire was out, he moved closer to inspect the laptop. As he got close, it erupted into flames yet again, almost injuring the teenager. He sprayed it again with the extinguisher, putting out the fire for good.

The fire appears to have come from the Dell laptop's lithium-ion battery. That's the same type of battery technology that's been recalled for causing fires in Hoverboards, Samsung Galaxy smartphones and a variety of laptops. In 2006, Dell recalled 4.1 million laptop batteries because of the risk of fire. Last week, Hewlett Packard recalled 101,000 laptop batteries, which the Consumer Product Safety Commission said could overheat and catch on fire.

"They get hot for various reasons," said Bruce Dunn, professor of Materials Science and Engineering at UCLA. Dunn is one of the country's leading experts on lithium-ion batteries.

"Sometimes, that heat can be a (manufacturing) defect. And lots of times it's abuse. The battery is dropped on the floor, its punctured," said Dunn, whose team at UCLA is developing a battery that will never catch on fire.

The Johnson family wants to know what caused their laptop to go up in flames, almost setting their home on fire. They said no one ever dropped the laptop. So they emailed video of the incident to Dell and sent photos of the burned up device.

"It just exploded. So why, why is this happening?" asked Tori Johnson.

When we first aired this story, Dell told NBC4 it was investigating the cause of the fire. Dell spokesman Dave Farmer says that investigation is now complete.

"The battery involved was not manufactured by Dell and was not an authentic Dell battery...incompatible, counterfeit, or third batteries may increase the risk of a safety related incident," Farmer told NBC4 in an email.

The I-Team asked Farmer to provide NBC4 with photos showing the physical characteristics and markings that show the battery that caught on fire was not made by Dell. Dell wouldn't provide us with that information.

"Our investigative techniques and full results need to remain confidential," Farmer said.

The Johnson family disputes Dell's findings, telling NBC4 they never replaced the original battery on the laptop in question.

Dr. Dunn at UCLA said there are steps you can take to help prevent lithium-ion batteries in your laptop from catching fire, including:

  • Charge your device on a hard surface, which lets heat dissipate
  • Don't charge devices on beds or couches
  • Don't overcharge devices. He suggests unplugging a device just before its fully charged
  • Don't leave your laptop plugged in and charging overnight or when you go to work

Editor's Note: This article was updated Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017 with a statement from Dell.

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