Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Rare Wharf Fire Knocked Down In Los Angeles Port

Members of the United States Coast Guard (USCG), Los Angeles Port Police and Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) successfully battled a rare dock fire at the Port of Los Angeles last week.

Late in the evening of August 20, USCG officials reported a fire under one of the base's wharfs to LAFD units. Initial reports suggested that welding may have sparked the blaze. The USCG reported that due to the limited personnel at the base they required outside assistance with the blaze.

Three port-stationed LAFD firefighting vessels – Fireboats 1, 2, and 5 – responded on the waterside. Traditional fire units, as well as members from other emergency agencies from around the port area, responded landside.

In the past, wharf fires were not unheard of at the port, but with modern wharf construction utilizing concrete instead of wooden pilings, such events have become rare. While the USCG base does have a more than 1,000-foot-long modern concrete dolphin wharf for use with larger cutters, the fire occurred under an older 330-foot-long, 50-foot-wide wooden-piled and decked wharf.

Responding emergency units found that the fire was located deep under Berth 240 at the USCG dolphin pier that fronts the entire base on the port main channel, making access extremely difficult. In addition, direct access from the waterside was blocked by a 175 foot-long USCG buoy tender docked at the wharf. It was initially determined it may have taken two hours to reposition the vessel.

To avoid further damage to the wharf, or potentially the base itself, LAFD Battalion Chief Ray Gomez, in Unified Command with the USCG and the Los Angeles Port Police, directed a fire attack that came from both above and below.

Divers off the fireboats dove under the dock with "under-wharf" firefighting nozzles to handle the bulk of the fire, while hoselines were advanced from the LAFD engine companies above to prevent a spread of the fire.

The fire required a total of 46 firefighters and divers more than an hour and a half to extinguish.

Damage was confined to a very small section of the wharf, according to LAFD officials, and no injuries were reported.

LAFD officials said that the cause of the fire has not yet been determined and the dollar loss not yet tabulated.

Ironically, the highly coordinated response to the incident comes just over two weeks after an internal audit found that the relationship between the Port of Los Angeles and the LAFD suffered from "frayed trust."

The 67-page audit found that much of the acrimony stemmed from "serious philosophical differences" over how to deal with billing issues between the two entities. The port paid $24 million for LAFD fire services in the port for FY2010, with three-quarters of this going to maintenance and staffing of the fireboats. One of the potential remedies being studied by port officials is to combine fire service costs with the neighboring Port of Long Beach, which paid only $12.3 million for fire services from the Long Beach Fire Department in FY2010.