Seal Beach Pier Fire

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Seal Beach, CA May 20, 2016

The structure fire in an abandoned restaurant at the far end of the Seal Beach municipal pier illustrated the challenges and capabilities of fighting fire using vessel based pumping systems in Orange County. A review of the defensive firefighting operations from this uncontrolled fire in strong onshore winds demonstrates the value of adequate fire pumping capabilities from a fireboat platform necessary to limit property damage and public injury.

At 0735 on Friday May 20th, 2016, the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) responded to a fire in a restaurant at the end of a pier that is 1835 feet long. While the fire was declared under control at 0905, strong onshore winds fed hidden fire that led to a conflagration that consumed all adjacent structures. Pumping operations from numerous fireboats from the Long Beach Fire Department and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department-Harbor Patrol limited damage to the pier itself. Additional fireboats from the Los Angeles Fire Department and Los Angeles County Fire Department were requested during the expansion phase of the fire.

Several important lessons were learned from this event. First, the coordination and cooperation from the many agencies involved including federal, state and local government stems from proper preincident plans development. This is critical during an event that can potentially impact the coastal water environment in California. Further, the assistance provided by fire boats based in Los Angeles County reinforced a gap in capability by all fire agencies in Orange County and proved critical to the suppression effort. No Orange County fire service agency has a fireboat capable of pumping water on a fire. And, while some believe that there are too few boat fires and pier fires to expend the resources for a fireboat, the data suggest otherwise. Initially, consider the time, effort and expenditures expended to prepare for a wild land fire. Realistically, what is the wild land fire threat potential near the coast with higher humidity and near constant marine influence? Does it exist? Certainly. But so does the threat from a fire on the water as demonstrated in Seal Beach.

There are three harbors in the County of Orange: Dana Point Harbor, Huntington Harbor and Newport Harbor. Each of these is unique, but fundamentally they share a common challenge regarding fire protection. Fire suppression in the water environment is delivered by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department-Harbor Patrol (OCSD-HP) from fireboats deployed in the harbors, and not the local fire departments. Because this is not a required service, as determined by the county counsel in a report on the Harbor Patrol in 2010, the sustainability of this important protective service is subject to the support from the OCSD and not by legislative mandate. However, the initial and on-going fire suppression training given to the Orange County Sheriff’s deputies is not equal to the established standard of the fire service in California. OCSD-HP deputies are trained in a curriculum not vetted by State Fire Training. This is probably most problematic during offensive interior operations aboard a vessel when operating in a marginal situation. Proper training is essential and until this gap in training is addressed, the risk to the public is elevated.

Of the three Orange County harbors, the most significant fire suppression challenges are seen in Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, but for different reasons. In Huntington Harbor, all boats are dockside and reachable by land-based firefighters unless underway. There are no offshore moorings in Huntington Harbor, however a unique challenge is the offshore oil platform Eureka. This platform lies in the near shore environment and within Huntington Beach city limits if you observe a three-mile mark from mean high tide. When the platform is operational this represents a potentially significant fire suppression challenge beyond the capability of the OCSD-HP and the local fire department. Another significant challenge is in Newport Beach. Newport Harbor has over 1200 public moorings beyond the reach of land-based fire fighters, as well as several areas of anchorage for larger vessels. Each of these moorings and anchorage sites potentially represent a floating residential condominium beyond the reach of land-based firefighters. Each of the vessels should be recognized as a complex structure that holds combustible and/or flammable liquid as operational fuel, as well as hazardous mechanical and electrical systems in a confined space environment. Together, these hazards pose a significant challenge for fire suppression actions for the local fire department in the form of resource deployment, training, and apparatus acquisition and deployment.

The challenge for Dana Point and Newport Harbor is that the fireboats that were available for the Seal Beach pier fire would have a much greater reflex time to reach the site of any similar fire suppression incident either Dana Point or Newport Harbor. The extended reflex, or travel time, would exacerbate the fire problem and increase the time before suppression actions were employed, leading to a larger fire and greater damage to property and the public. The fire in this scenario could develop beyond the capability of standard fire suppression tactics and potentially consume all available fuel in its path.

The likelihood that fireboats specifically designated to protect such a vital commercial port operation and national interest would be released from that primary duty and made available for something far from their primary duty in the port of Los Angeles/Long Beach is an open question that would be determined at the time of the event

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