A fire scorching a docked ship along downtown San Diego’s waterfront has been contained and will soon burn out, two days later.
The smokey haze from the ongoing fire clouded the usually-picturesque area, prompting some businesses to close due to the air quality.
The fire sparked at around 9:40 a.m. Friday on the lower deck level of a 120-foot fishing vessel docked at 750 North Harbor Dr. on the San Diego Harbor, about one-third of a mile from Seaport Village, a landmark filled with small shops and eateries.
Quickly, heavy, black smoke filled the waterfront, visible all along the harbor and from some parts of downtown. As the fire intensified, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department (SDFD) officials decided it was too dangerous for firefighters to battle the flames on board and switched to a defensive tactic, spraying the ship from other emergency vessels surrounding it in the water.
Eventually, fire officials decided to let the ship fire burn itself out, keeping a watchful eye on the blaze overnight to make sure mooring lines didn’t ignite. SDFD spokesperson Monica Munoz said the fire appeared to be localized in the bow of the ship.
Air quality was not declared dangerous. Still, some surrounding businesses in Seaport Village and at The Headquarters at Seaport shopping complex opted to close due to the ongoing smoke.
Seaport Village posted a message Friday to its Facebook page warning patrons that some stores and restaurants within the center would temporarily close due to the air quality. Patrons were urged to call shops or eateries to confirm if they were open ahead of visiting.
On Sunday, some businesses reopened.
Chris Webber, Assistant Chief of Emergency Operations with SDFD told NBC 7 on Friday that ship fires are extremely difficult to manage due to a number of factors.
“These ship fires are very dangerous,” Webber told NBC 7. “If you think about it, it’s almost like a high-rise building sitting on its side. We practice and train for it as part of our normal thing but, as you can see, they are difficult. We have to pull lines all the way down to the end of the pier so that they can get into the ship.”
Webber said ladders were placed around the ship so firefighters could get on and off as needed. They also had to set up rescue crews in case a firefighter, outfitted with heavy gear, were to fall into the water.
[G] San Diego Fire-Rescue Crews Battle Ship Fire Near Seaport Village
At around 11:40 a.m. Friday, Harbor Police Department Chief John Bolduc said the agencies made a unified decision to pull firefighters off the ship because it was no longer safe to fight the flames on board. Bolduc said officials hoped the fire would burn itself out within a few dozen hours.
Munoz said on Sunday that officials measured the boat's temperature. The highest reading they recorded was 100 degrees.
For all intents and purposes, she said, the fire is out.
Bolduc said the last time they let a boat burn itself out was about two years ago when a fire tore through a boat on a dry dock. That fire took 51 hours to burn out.
As the ship was burning, thermal imaging cameras were measuring the fire and yielding scorching temperatures inside the ship – so hot that water applied to the ship was boiling right off.
Authorities said that thermal imaging data indicated temperatures of 700+ degrees inside the vessel.
The Coast Guard has also contracted an agency, NRC, to help assess the environmental impact of the ship fire. NRC is monitoring the air and if they detect anything outside of normal limits, they will notify officials, Ricci said.
Any pieces of the burning vessel falling into the water are being bagged and disposed of properly as they fall, he said. NRC officials were out in the water on small boats surrounding the ship, picking up any falling debris and testing the water.
Ricci, a 35-year veteran of the SDFD, said he’s handled smaller boat fires but has never seen anything like this.
“Boat fires, ship fires like this, are one of the most dangerous fires that we’ll ever fight,” he said.
The ship is emblazoned with the name "Norton Sound," and appears to be a fishing vessel. The ship had been docked there for several months. Weber and Munoz said SDFD crews did not find anyone on board during a primary search of the vessel.
Munoz told NBC 7 that authorities have not been able to locate the owners of the ship, as the current owners are not in the Coast Guard's database.
NBC 7 reached out to Norton Sound Enterprises, LLC/E&E Foods, a Seattle-based company that once held minority ownership on the vessel. The director of sales said the ship was sold this past spring to someone in Mexico, though he couldn't confirm the owner's name. The new owner brought the ship to San Diego and docked it at the waterfront.
The cause of the fire is under investigation; no injuries were reported.