Is Hamilton prepared to handle a big boat fire?

Hamilton emergency services only have one boat equipped with a pump-and-hose system to put out fires, raising questions about how prepared the city is to respond to boat fires that occur just off its shores.

Sailboat destroyed during Wednesday blaze near Carrol's Point

A boat has caught fire in Hamilton Harbour. Black smokes can be seen (Zoe Branigan-Pipe)

Hamilton emergency services only have one boat that’s equipped to fight fires on the water, raising questions about how prepared the city is to respond to boat or ship fires that occur just off its shores.

That boat belongs to an agency — the Hamilton Police Service — which is clear that its mandate does not include fighting fires.

Neither the Hamilton Fire Department nor the Hamilton Port Authority have active vessels that are equipped to fight fires on the water. And the Canadian Coast Guard couldn't say on Thursday what resources its two science ships that list Burlington as their home port have to respond to boat fires in the bay. 

The lack of on-water firefighting options was exposed Wednesday when a 30-foot sailboat caught fire in shallow water. A police boat was forced to monitor the fire from hundreds of metres away, because the water wasn't deep enough for it to get closer. 

The fire burned for several hours, pouring black smoke into the sky above the West Harbour. The two occupants got to shore safely.

The Hamilton Fire Department does not respond to boat fires unless a burning vessel is in port. The department does not have a fire boat and doesn’t consider the bay as part of its jurisdiction.

“If they’re right out in the middle of the bay, we have no way of getting out to the them,” said fire department spokesperson Claudio Mostacci. “It’s not our responsibility.”

That duty actually falls to the Hamilton police’s marine unit. In addition, the unit, which has four full-time officers and three officers it can call upon for more support, is responsible for patrolling the bay in the summers months, scanning for impaired boaters and other safety violations, and performing emergency rescues from the city’s bodies of water year-round.

And though the Hamilton Police Service is the lead agency responsible to deal with boat fires in the bay, the service has only a portable pump to take lake water and project it onto a blaze.

“We’re not in the firefighting business. We’re in the business to ensure that lives aren’t lost on the water.- Staff Sergeant Rob Hersics, Hamilton Police Service

Staff Sgt. Rob Hersics of the Hamilton police’s support services division, which oversees the marine unit, says the pump can be moved from one boat to another.

Asked if police were adequately prepared to deal with fires on the waters of Burlington Bay, Hersics said: “We’re not in the firefighting business. We’re in the business to ensure that lives aren’t lost on the water."

The Hamilton Port Authority has a tugboat — the 64-year-old Judge McCombs — with some firefighting capacity, but it is no longer in active service, said port authority spokesperson Larissa Fenn.

If the police require backup, the marine unit would call upon the Canadian Coast Guard, Hersics said. Also, the provincial Ministry of the Environment would be called if there were concern that a high volume of a hazardous material could spill into the water.

“Our main concern is saving lives and if there’s any kind of environmental impact, that we minimize that impact by trying to contact the proper resources,” Hersics said. 

A spokesperson with the Canadian Coast Guard said on Thursday afternoon she wasn't certain what resources the service had available to respond to a boat fire in the Burlington Bay.

However, the coast guard's website says two vessels are based out of its Burlington research station. Both are used primarily for scientific research, and the website doesn't list firefighting as one of the boats' capabilities. 

Wednesday sailboat fire

The issue of the city’s readiness to deal with boat fires in the bay arose on Wednesday after the sailboat caught fire near Carrol’s Point just before 4:30 p.m.

Hersics said the boat was anchored in shallow water when two occupants tried to jumpstart the vessel’s engine battery, which had died. An electrical problem caused a fire to break out, he said. 

The boat’s occupants, two men, were rescued by a nearby boat.

A police boat responded to the fire, but because of the shallow waters, couldn’t move in close enough to the boat to stop it from becoming engulfed in flames. It watched from several hundred metres away as the boat burned to waterline.

John Modesto, a member of the Macassa Bay Yacht Club, said he saw the two victims as they arrived at the marina.

One of the men, a longtime club member, did not appear to be in distress, but his clothing showed obvious burns, Modesto said.

“I told him he’d better go to the hospital because his clothing was sticking to his skin.”

Bill Mitchell, the commodore at the Macassa Bay Yacht Club, said he isn't sure whether the response measures in place put boaters — or their vessels — at undue risk.

"I boat all the time and I don’t have problems," he said, adding that boaters are required to have fire extinguishers on board. "But things do happen."

If a fire gets out of control, he said, boaters in the bay always have the following option: "You get a life jacket and get the hell in a water."

"You've got to keep your head. And don’t get frazzled."