The 63-year-old, who lives alone in Leichhardt, ran outside to turn off the power, then back in to grab her computer hard drives and an old dress from her bedroom.
With her phone inside the house, she ran next door and asked her neighbour to call the fire brigade.
The firefighters arrived promptly – “I’m told it was four minutes but it felt like three hours” – but it was too late to save her home. The fire gutted the house and caused tens of thousands of dollars damage to the property next door.
All signs point to the lithium ion battery of Ms Sandford’s beloved eZee Sprint e-bike as the culprit.
Inspector Winston Pisani of the Leichhardt Area Command told The Sun-Herald the police had referred the event to the NSW Coroner to establish the cause of the fire, adding that the signs were “obviously all pointing to something”.
The Coroner investigates fires when property damage is over a certain amount, even without loss of life.
The exclusive importer of eZee e-bikes in Australia and New Zealand is Glow Worm Bicycles, which has a shop in Marrickville and also supplies other bike shops. Owner Maurice Wells said the business had registered a recall with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
“I don’t have any doubts about what happened,” Mr Wells said. “It’s a known issue with lithium batteries though it’s unprecedented for us for one of our customers to lose their house – it’s a nightmare scenario.”
Mr Wells said the recall was of a faulty batch of batteries branded eZee and identified by serial number. There were about 100 sold in Australia and his company had already located and recalled about half.
EZee spokesman Wai Won Ching said the main reason for the fire would be the lithium battery cells supplied by LG Korea. Internationally there were about 200 in the faulty batch manufactured in March 2016.
However, a spokesman for LG Chem said there was no record of this transaction and the company regarded eZee’s statement as “false”.
Lithium ion batteries are used in a range of consumer electronics, from mobile phones and laptops to electric cars. An ACCC spokesman said there had been about 56 voluntary recalls for hazards relating to rechargeable batteries since 2010.
Fires are uncommon but known to occur. In 2016 a toy hoverboard with a lithium ion battery reportedly caused a fire in Melbourne.
“The bigger the battery, the scarier the outcome – an e-bike battery is much bigger than a laptop battery, but about a hundredth the size of an electric car,” Mr Wells said.
Mr Wells said lithium batteries were most volatile when fully charged and still plugged in, so it would reduce risk to use a timer. He also recommended consumers choose the safest charging location possible, such as a garage.
He added this was the first incident he has dealt with in 10 years of importing and selling e-bikes, and he would continue to charge his own battery at home. “If you had a house catch on fire because of faulty wiring, you would still rebuild and the new house would have electricity,” Mr Wells said.
Ms Sandford’s e-bike was one of her few possessions to survive the fire because it was outside and she bought a new battery within days.
“I’m back on it – I love it,” she said. “You could be hit by a bus and it doesn’t mean you’ll be hit by a bus again.”
Ms Sandford, who is staying in an Airbnb funded by insurance, has had multiple teams of forensic experts, police officers and insurance assessors through her house and was told it probably needs to be demolished.
“Like everyone, I’m underinsured, so that will affect what I can do or I might need to dip into savings,” she said.
Ms Sandford set her insurance amounts when she first bought the property.
More than five weeks after the fire, she is yet to receive her insurance payout but has been “gobsmacked” by the kindness of strangers.
The documentary editor goes to Burma every year to teach film-making and fundraises to help her students’ communities. Her Burmese students returned the favour and sent her $6800.
A neighbour in Leichhardt gave her $4000 cash, and others have provided clothes and other necessities.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is the associate editor of The Sun-Herald and a columnist.