firefighter boat fires

One year ago, at this time of year, there was another boat fire in the Pacific Northwest. That one appeared to have been caused by an unattended burning candle. Those of us who have lived in the Whatcom County area for any length of time will surely remember the boathouse fire at Squalicum six years ago, a fire that took two lives.  While it’s a good thing to make sure our sails are stowed, and our lines are strong, we shouldn’t overlook an ever-present danger, one that often shows itself in the lonely winter months in many marinas; boat fires.

Having a clear understanding of when, where and how boat fires start is crucial in combating the risk of fire at sea or on the dock. You see, it takes two things for a fire to start and thrive; a fire starter and the object that will burn.

In other words, the setup must include an ignition and fuel to sustain the fire. And in most cases when an insurer hands over the matter to a fire investigator, they don’t always succeed in finding the exact cause. In fact, 8% of the cases never succeed.

However, it is not surprising to note that cases which have been successfully determined often indicate that electrical issues as being the primary cause of the fire. According to BoatUS, 55% of all boat fires are the result of electrical issues including wiring, both AC and DC. Twenty-five percent of fires result from engine and transmission overheating. Often, a vessel will catch fire as a result of a nearby boat on fire.

You don’t have to look far to see how real the danger is. Just a quick search on Google with the search term “Boat fire” will yield an astonishing number in just the last few months.

In September 2015, ten people were injured out of a boat explosion in Lake George. The owner had finished fueling the boat and turned the key in the ignition before the explosion happened. Fire investigators haven’t established the cause yet.

In early October 2015, two boats were destroyed by fire when stationed at the dock in Mashpee (Massachusetts).  Of course, there were the two I mentioned earlier, in Seattle and Bellingham.

Many Causes

The fact remains that inboard boats are larger than outboard boats. What this means is that the area around the engine is not always accessible or visible in the same way that outboard boats are.

When a boat is tied to the dock with no one in attendance, it’s easier for an accidental fire to gain significant momentum before someone notices.

Most fire incidents can be traced back to maintenance issues relating to AC electrical system, DC electrical system, and the engine — especially the cooling system. Therefore, regular maintenance can have a huge impact when it comes to reducing the risk of a fire.

12-volt DC electrical system

Fire is no stranger t the engine room. Incidents are caused by the engine, battery or both. These are situated in the engine room where other things are likely to strengthen a fire. We’re talking of a slow fuel leak, (in the case of a gasoline engine) and so on. If faulty DC wiring starts to heat up, you have the necessary ingredients for a disaster.

On the other hand, starting the engine while charging the battery at the same time can create a higher amperage, and this load is likely to burn undersized wires or corroded connections.

Older Boats

Fault in the starter and wire harnesses account for most fire incidents in boats that are 25 years and older. Consider replacing the starter and wiring harness and inspect all electrical systems on a regular frequent basis.

AC electrical boat fires

Check your shore power connection, it’s the power gateway to your boat and is subject to high loads and weather, a dangerous combination with inadequate maintenance. In a marine atmosphere, the inlets, outlets, and plugs in the shore power system are likely to react to dirt, corrosion or moisture. These elements damage any existing mechanical contacts in the boat, and will lead to increasing current resistance, and consequently overheat.

Technology has improved heaters and manufacturers are coming up with safe and efficient models that don’t encourage accidental fires.  Make sure that your heater is designed for the marine environment. But remember, that heaters still draw a tremendous amount of power. Any corrosion existing in the shore power system and cords connecting the heaters will encourage overheating.

Stay vigilant.


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