Fishing boat blaze prompts new evaluation of firefighting on San Diego Bay
The study will focus primarily on large-scale fire and emergency medical risks, the resources available and the agreements that may be needed
By David Garrick
The San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN DIEGO — San Diego has hired a consultant to study how fire agencies handled a large boat fire on San Diego Bay two years ago that filled parts of downtown with billowing smoke and the pungent smell of molten metal for several days.
The fire, and the failure to quickly extinguish it, raised concerns about the capabilities, training and equipment of the fire agencies that handle emergencies on the bay, Fire-Rescue Chief Colin Stowell said.
“The study focuses primarily on large-scale fire and emergency medical risks, the resources available and the agreements that may be needed,” Stowell told the City Council’s public safety committee last month.
Responsibility for emergencies on the bay is shared by the city, Harbor Police, federal fire departments and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Stowell said the fire “provided some significant challenges” and “identified gaps” in the preparedness of the agencies.
Crews struggled to extinguish the fire, which started during the morning of Sept. 17, 2017, on a 120-foot commercial fishing and research boat called the Norton Sound. It was docked at the G Street Pier near Seaport Village.
The fire became a sort of tourist attraction on the harbor. It continued to burn for more than three days as crews grappled with how to avoid causing the boat to sink and emit dangerous toxins into the bay.
The smell was so strong from the blaze that some nearby businesses closed temporarily.
Fire officials said one reason it took so long to extinguish the fire is that it reached temperatures of more than 2,500 degrees, making it too dangerous for firefighters to attack at its source.
Instead, crews sprayed the hull to cool the ship and used thermal imaging technology to scan for the hottest spots onboard.
Meanwhile, firefighters sprayed 2,000 gallons of water per minute at the ship from special boats that pump water directly from the bay.
Crews also sprayed from the nearby pier, which was closed near the fire so a dock could be secured to support firefighting efforts.
Fire officials said the process could have been expedited if firefighters had special suits allowing them to safely get to the fire’s source, which is the quickest way to extinguish a blaze.
Such equipment upgrades could be among the recommendations from the consultant, Citygate Associates. Citygate has previously analyzed the city’s use of ambulances and the locations of its fire stations.
The report from Citygate is scheduled to be complete this fall, Stowell said. In addition to making recommendations, it will identify the strengths and weaknesses of the fire agencies’ efforts, he said.
One piece of equipment that was available to help was a floating barrier called a “boom” that the Coast Guard used to collect debris that fell off the ship.
A challenge created by the extreme heat was it causing some areas of the ship to auto combust – catch fire without being touched by flames.
Another challenge authorities faced was determining the boat’s owner, how long it had been docked in the bay and whether anyone was on board.
The Coast Guard initially said the boat, which dates back to 1944, was owned by Norton Sound Seafood Products of Alaska. But it was discovered, while the fire was still blazing, that the boat had been recently sold to residents of Mexico.
Officials said records indicated it had been docked in the bay since that March.
A Fire-Rescue Department spokeswoman said Thursday that the city’s arson strike team determined the fire was not arson. But the spokeswoman, Monica Munoz, said investigators couldn’t determine how the fire started.
Fire crews also struggled with how to safely remove the boat from the bay after the blaze was extinguished.
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