Don’t burn your bridge

A 108-foot steel crab boat was tied up alongside the dock for maintenance in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands chain. The deck had about 180 crab pots, stacked six high on the deck with a tunnel in the center to allow passage, fore and aft, into the main deck house. The skipper and one crewman were out on the main deck working on the crabber’s crane and crab block. One other crewman was in the galley working on dinner and the last was grabbing a quick nap on his bunk.

At 4 p.m., the skipper wanted to test the crane, so he called on the crewman in the galley to assist. Around 4:25, the crewman who was sleeping awoke to cracking and popping sounds. He sat up in his bunk and saw a glow of flame and smoke coming under the doorway of the berthing space. The crewman felt the door, which wasn’t hot, but more smoke was pouring into the space. He opened the door, and as he sprinted past the galley, he saw it was on fire. He continued onto the deck to tell the others. 

As the skipper and crewmen headed aft, they could see smoke coming from the main deck-level of the house. The skipper grabbed the first fire extinguisher he saw, which was at the top of the stairwell leading to the engine room. He made it about 10 feet toward the galley when he ran into flames and heat; he emptied the contents of the extinguisher toward the base of the flames. The skipper retreated aft and went down into the engine room to secure the power supply at the main breaker panel. He then grabbed a larger extinguisher from the bottom of the engine room stairwell, returned and emptied the big extinguisher into the fire, but still could not get into the galley.

He told the other crewmen to make for the dock and see if they could find fire hoses. Then he quickly returned to the engine room for his last big extinguisher. This time he managed to forge ahead to just inside the entrance of the galley. The bulkhead behind the stove and refrigerator was on fire. As he used the last of the extinguisher, the flames rolled across the overhead like a wave and began to creep behind him. The skipper knew he needed to get out, or he’d be trapped. He went forward, up the stairwell to the wheelhouse and grabbed another extinguisher, but by this time smoke was coming heavy up the wheelhouse stairwell. He was forced to exit through the portside hatch and make his way down onto the dock.

At 5:15 p.m. the local fire dispatcher was notified of a fire. The harbormaster had arrived with hoses in his pick-up truck. 

The fire chief took over firefighting operations 15 minutes later; he continued to cool the outside of the house and also attacked the fire from the main deck, through the tunnel in the stacked pots. Within a very short time the firefighters were able to contain the fire and stop it from spreading down into the engine room. The firefighters called it extinguished at about 6:05 p.m. and set a reflash watch.

Although the crabber’s house received extensive damage, the skipper and crew escaped with no injuries and did not need medical attention. The crabber was refitted, repaired and eventually returned to service. 

Lessons learned

An interview with the crewman who was doing the cooking that day revealed that he was heating up a pan of bacon grease on the stove. When he was called forward to help with work on deck, he left the stove top on under the pan. The fire marshal and Coast Guard inspector concluded the fire originated on the electric cook stove in the galley.

Know where it is safe to smoke on the vessel (away from flammable liquids, gases, and aerosols), carry out fire drills regularly, test your smoke detectors and never leave a stove unattended to help avoid these accidents.


Whether you’re underway or tied up, pay attention to what you are working on, don’t let your guard down, and fish safe!

This article is based on U.S. Coast Guard reporting and is intended to bring safety issues to the attention of our readers. It is not intended to judge or reach conclusions regarding the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any boat or piece of equipment.

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