Boat fires: The overlooked hazard on the waves

Fires aren't the most common mishap on the water, but when they to break out there's little margin for error. KARE followed the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office Water Patrol and the Excelsior Fire District on a training exercise. 

MINNEAPOLIS -- Fires aren't the most common mishap on the water, but when they do break out there's little margin for error and no time for mistakes.

We wanted to know what we could learn from those who fight boating blazes, so we asked the Hennepin County Sheriff's Water Patrol and the Excelsior Fire District to demonstrate how they suppress those fires.

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Tonka Bay Marina owner Gabriel Jabbour donated a Skiff Craft for the exercise, and piloted a pontoon into the burn zone so that KARE photographers could get the best views of the drill.

"In today's world, the way things are built it doesn't take very long for a fire to burn," Excelsior Fire District Chief Scott Gerber told KARE. "Fire starts really small, right? And it grows. It grows extremely fast."

Chief Gerber commanded the exercise, setting wooden pallets and cardboard ablaze with flares, simulating fires that start in the engine as well as those that start in the front of a boat.

According to the Minnesota State Fire Marshal's Office the number of boat fires average about a dozen per year.

The Minn. Dept. of Natural Resources reports roughly five fires per year. But those are just the fires that are large enough to attract attention for law enforcement; the actual number is probably much higher.

Your chance of survival depends on being ready to put out the flames yourself, or knowing when it's time to abandon ship.

"The preventive things people can do ahead of time," Gerber said. "Do they have life jackets that are close? Do they have fire extinguishers that are close that they can gain access to them?"

The Sheriff's Water Patrol boats are equipped with deck guns that pump water directly from the lake into the target, but in some cases firefighters must use foam to knock down a fire on the water.

"Boats that are built today have so much more fiberglass and petroleum built into them it's hard to get to the seat of the blaze, so sometimes we might have to use foam," Gerber explained.

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The blaze could've been much more ugly and dangerous, but the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency would only sign off on the demonstration if the Skiff Craft was stripped of its plastic and glass components and the fuel was removed.

Those are the kinds of elements that make a real boat blaze risky for responders, and even riskier for people on the craft. In fact many boaters don't realize just how flammable their boat can be.

"Fiberglass obviously is going to burn hot and boats have carpet on them," Hennepin County Sheriff's Deputy Jeremy Gunia explained.

"You have cooking areas. Living quarters. Blankets, all kinds of things that are able to fuel the flame."
The Fire Marshal's data shows the most common causes of boat fires in Minnesota are electrical malfunctions, fuel leaks and cooking accidents.

Deputy Gunia recommended annual inspections of boat to guard against electrical malfunctions, and fuel line leaks.

He said the constant vibration of boats on the waves can cause chafing of the electrical cables, exposing the copper wire and leading to short circuits. One sure warning sign is the odor of burning plastic or rubber coming from your boat. If you smell that, you should get the boat to a mechanic as soon as possible.

Some boat fires begin with a bang, one that can be deadly. Enclosed engine compartments don't have much in the way of ventilation, allowing gasoline vapors to collect and then ignite when the boat starts.

Functioning blowers are very important to preventing such explosions. The Water Patrol recommends running the blowers four to five minutes to vent the gases from the boat. And once you're underway and moving, the regular venting will take care of the vapors.