Barge fire threatens dock

Frank Milkowski hoses down the deck of his Brighton Beach home as a fire rages aboard a barge loaded with creosoted wood. The barge broke loose from its moorings and floated down the beach on the tide and winds, coming close to a number of homes. - Matt Johnson
Frank Milkowski hoses down the deck of his Brighton Beach home as a fire rages aboard a barge loaded with creosoted wood. The barge broke loose from its moorings and floated down the beach on the tide and winds, coming close to a number of homes.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

It started as a tiny puff of smoke.

A couple of hours after the last of the welders and metal cutters working for a marine contractor had left for dinner Thursday night, a smouldering fire aboard a barge became a drifting inferno that threatened to burn the Clinton ferry dock.

It took a response from all South Whidbey's fire companies, North Kitsap Fire and Rescue, the Chief Seattle fireboat, two Washington State Ferries boats and crews, and a plucky little tugboat, which all worked until about midnight to control the blaze that, despite its ferocity, did almost no material damage.

At about 7:30 p.m., firefighters from Fire District 3 were called to the site of the fire, a 170-foot barge moored just off Brighton Beach, about a quarter mile away from the Clinton dock. Out of range of the firefighters and their trucks and hoses, the fire grew until the entire barge and another 70-foot barge lashed to it were engulfed in flames.

The vessel's loads of creosote-soaked timbers and straw bales burned hot and with an inky black smoke. As more and more firefighters arrived, the blaze became a curiosity for beach residents.

But as the last light faded from the evening sky, the fire burned through the barge mooring ropes and set the barges adrift. That's when fire Captain Eldon Baker, who was the duty chief for FD 3 Thursday night, got worried.

"We didn't know what was going on at first," he said.

Baker and other FD3 firefighters thought they could fight the barge fire by putting a fire truck aboard a ferry and sailing to where the barge was anchored. When the barges broke loose and started drifting down the beach toward the ferry dock, that was no longer an option.

"There went Plan A, so we went to Plan B," Baker said.

Plan B involved two employees from Manson Construction, which is building the ferry dock, and the company's tugboat, which was stationed at the dock. Baker said the two men, who had little training in operating the tug, maneuvered it close to the burning barges, hooked up a tow rope and started pulling.

Though hampered by an incoming tide, unfavorable winds and a close call with the ferry dock, the tug pulled the barges into Saratoga Passage, though not before the barge had drifted close to Brighton Beach homes and forced an evacuation of the area.

Over the next hour, fireboats from various agencies converged on the scene to help douse the flames. Also helping were the crews of the two ferryboats on the Clinton-Mukilteo run, which were freed up to help after ferry service was suspended at 8 p.m. Armed with water-pumping facilities and fire- fighting foam aboard the boats, the WSF crews were a crucial part of the firefighting effort.

"We were real proud of our crews," said Susan Harris, a spokeswoman for the ferry system.

Missing from the response was the Coast Guard. According to FD 3 Special Services Battalion Chief Darin Reid, the guard was engaged in a search and rescue operation at the time and was unable to send a fireboat. The only boat FD3 could use in the operation was a 15-foot inflatable motorboat, which patrolled the area all night in case any firefighters fell overboard.

Baker said he was quickly able to determine a potential cause for the blaze. He said welding and cutting aboard the barges earlier in the day probably sparked a small fire that grew after quitting time. The barges, which are used at the dock during the work day, were anchored down the beach in case of fire.

Damage to the steel barges was minimal. No other property damaged resulted from the fire, Baker said.

The fire and suspension of ferry service did cause traffic to back up substantially in Mukilteo. Harris said that although service resumed at 11:30 p.m., WSF had to keep one boat running beyond its usually quitting time to accommodate the waiting line of drivers.

Cleanup of the fire is being done by Manson Construction, according to Baker. Company officials did not answer inquiries about the fire by press time Friday afternoon.

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