Roche Harbor boat fires caused by vapor explosion in engine room

An apparent breakdown in communication is being blamed for a fire that began in the engine room of a 35-foot powerboat at Roche Harbor Marina Nov. 4.

It’s the worst fire at the marina in nearly 30 years.

Flames completely engulfed and then destroyed two powerboats moored side-by-side at D dock before town and island firefighters were able to bring the blaze under control.

Firefighters positioned on the dock battled the mid-afternoon blaze for nearly an hour until the fireboat Confidence arrived and suffocated the inferno with a steady blast of fire-suppressing foam.

“It’s by far the biggest one I’ve seen in my 29 years here,” Roche Harbor Harbormaster Kevin Carlton said of the fire. “We’ve got a lot of work to do ahead of us. But it could’ve been worse. There were no injuries and, in the end, they’re just boats and they can be replaced. People can’t.”

As firefighters gained an upper hand on the blaze, a crew from Vessel Assist guided a third boat, the 40-foot Aquarius, moored beside the Julieanna, out of its berth and away from the area. Firefighters were able to contain the blaze and prevent it from spreading to other areas of D dock, heavily populated with vessels, both large and small and mostly fiberglass.

“Fiberglass is always a concern,” San Juan Island Fire Chief Steve Marler said. “Once that gets burning, it generates its own ability to burn even when the flames are out. The biggest concern about a marina fire is it moving from one boat to another.”

By the time blaze had been extinguished, the Liquid Assets, the boat in which the fire began, sank. In the neighboring slip, the Julieanna, a 38-footer, had been reduced to a charred, smoldering hull. Smoke and heat caused limited damage to the exterior of the Aquarius.

The U.S. Coast Guard reported an oil sheen in the area shortly after the fire had been contained.

County Fire Marshal Bob Low said the fire started in the Liquid Assets’ engine room after a boat detailer fired up an engine that was missing its carburetors. Low said the man was apparently unaware that the carburetors had been taken out to be rebuilt. Fuel that would have gone into the engine manifold instead created vapors that were ignited by a spark in the engine.

“There was a vapor explosion of some kind in the engine room and then the fire broke out from there,” said Low, who said the cause of the fire was accidental.

It’s the second boating mishap at Roche Harbor in two months. A 64-year-old Marysville man escaped with minor injuries Sept. 9 when his 25-foot Bayliner exploded during an apparent fueling mishap.

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