Blaze on barge subdued Monday

Fire on vessel with junked cars may have been started by spontaneous combustion

Posted: Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Firefighters attacking the scrap-metal barge fire near Haines on Sunday attribute success to their long hours and to quick thinking and hard work by the barge operators.

The fire on the barge W.J. Carbon was put out by 8:30 a.m. Monday, said Marcy Johnson, director of business development for Channel Construction, which leases the barge and owns the tug - the Lumberman - that was pulling it.

"There was still smoke in Haines this morning," said Capt. Eric Daigneault of the Fairweather Express, a passenger catamaran owned by Chilkat Cruises & Tours that helped fight the fire. "The whole valley from Haines to Skagway was choked with smoke. It was thick, black."

The barge caught fire about 2:15 p.m. Sunday as it was being towed from Juneau to Haines to take on more scrap metal, such as junked cars. Coast Guard officials said the fire might have been started by spontaneous combustion.

No one was injured. Two state ferries and three cruise ships in the area were delayed by the Coast Guard on Sunday.

During the fire, Channel Construction owner William "Shorty" Tonsgard and his nephew, Loren Tonsgard, an equipment operator, flew to the scene and boarded the barge, Johnson said.

The men on the barge used heavy machinery to draw water from Lynn Canal and spread it over the vessel, to move junk cars around so water could penetrate layers of metal, and even to pick up cars so firefighters could douse them, said people at the scene.

"That's what really helped us to get things under control," said Lt. Dave Gross of the Haines Volunteer Fire Department.

The barge was scheduled to be docked at Haines on Monday night and to be examined by a marine surveyor, the affected companies and the Coast Guard this morning, said Lt. Bill Jeffries of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Juneau.

The Haines Volunteer Fire Department will stand by at the dock.

"There are probably still some hot spots bedded down in the structure so we're going to stand by when they tie up," said Fire Chief Scott Bradford.

Jeffries said the barge fire didn't pollute Lynn Canal and doesn't pose such a problem now. The vessel is stable, he said.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation said there were no reports of effects to the shoreline or wildlife.

The fire was fought by Coast Guardsmen on the cutter Anacapa, Haines volunteer firefighters on the tour boat Fairweather Express, and crew on the tugboat Le Chevel Rouge. Bradford said another tug boat helped, as well. A TEMSCO helicopter also dumped water from the air several times.

Daigneault skippered the Fairweather Express, which was the first rescue boat on scene, at 2:45 p.m. It carried some volunteer firefighters, company president Tom Crandall and engineer Bud Barber.

"When we rolled up on the scene a fuel tank or something exploded and we just got hammered with little bits and pieces of cars," Daigneault said. "We had bits and pieces of flaming debris landing on the boat."

The Fairweather Express backed off, but Daigneault saw a man on the barge near a truck containing tanks of diesel fuel, propane and liquid oxygen. Daigneault placed his ship next to the barge's stern, and firefighters pumped seawater through hoses onto the tanks of explosive materials.

"It was our job to make sure the fire wasn't headed toward any of that equipment," Daigneault said.

Until nearly 11 p.m., when the Coast Guard dismissed the vessel, Daigneault kept the Fairweather pressed against the barge. The Coast Guard continued to fight the fire through the night. Crew on the Anacapa couldn't be reached for comment Monday.

"It was getting so hot we were having to hose down the back of the boat," Daigneault said. At times the fire was 50 feet over their heads.

"I would say a third of (the barge) was cooking. It was getting so hot the steel (from cars) was melting and running over the side of the barge," he said.

Gross, of the Haines Volunteer Fire Department, said, "basically, it was just dumping as much water as you could on it for as long as you could."

Gross arrived home at the end of Father's Day, at about midnight.

"My son was sleeping next to the door waiting for me," he said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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