Fire onboard! What are boaters to do?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 25, 2004

Special to the News-Herald

Urban legends. The Internet is filled with this might-be-truths. Did something really happen…or is it myth?

Recently the Boat Owners Association of The United States, which is also known as BoatUS, via their magazine &uot;SEAWORTHY&uot; reported on the causes of fires onboard boats. Big topic: one that needs to get as much exposure and discussion as possible.

Email newsletter signup

Think about about it – if you have a fire at sea, where can you go?

The short answer: Really nowhere, except in the water. So you have to know how to successfully fight it.

What is interesting about this subject area is that when the initial findings ran a reaction occurred that was not anticipated.

According to an April 21 BoatUS Press Release, &uot;some BoatUS members took the report to task for what they thought was conspicuously absent – there were no vessel fires reported as a result of improperly stored charcoal spontaneously combusting.&uot; Without knowing it the original Seaworthy piece had brought to light one of the biggest urban legends in recreational boating.

So what did BoatUS do with the reaction they received? In their April 2004 issue they examined that very topic – can spontaneous combustion occur?

According to the same press release, after an exhaustive search, BoatUS found research conducted by the University of California, Berkley’s professor P.J. Pagni.

In March 2002 Professor Pagni, while speaking at a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) event, according to BoatUS reported &uot;that the largest commercially available bag of charcoal briquettes (20 lbs.) cannot self-ignite at a temperature below 250 degrees. All tested variations – size, different formulations, addition of water or dry wood, aging, and different bag configurations – raised the already high temperature bar for spontaneous combustion.

At normal temperatures (approximately 77 degrees Fahrenheit), Pagni’s data showed that a bag of charcoal briquettes would have to exceed the normal volume of a typical house to self-ignite.&uot; The magazine went on to report that, &uot;spontaneous combustion of charcoal sold to consumers is not a possibility because of its processing, small quantity and container.&uot;

So where does this legend come from? Well, for that answer we must step back about 100 years in time and look at what was powering vessels back then. The answer – coal and not charcoal.

A quick check of a Google web check uncovered that coal can and does self-combust. In fact, there is lots of documentation on it.

One recreational boating urban legend debunked. However, this brings up another question which I know one of my readers is sure to ask: What if a charcoal is soaked in lighter fluid as some are sold today? Does that have an effect on its capability of combusting?

What do you think? I’ll save that question for a future column. That’s it for this week. If you haven’t reviewed how to fight a fire onboard please do now.

Until next week…Boat Safe, Boat Smart!