Vessel fires flare up off the US coast

Ro-ro vessel Hoegh Xiamen. Credit: SEAPIX/Trevor Coppock

A fire that started in the cargo area of a roll-on, roll-off (ro-ro) vessel in the port of Jacksonville (JAXPORT) shortly after completing loading operations has finally been fully extinguished after smouldering for a week.

At a press conference held on 5 June, the US Coast Guard (USCG) sector Jacksonville commander captain Mark Vlaun confirmed that the fire had been contained to deck levels six and above; however, temperatures at lower deck levels remained in the range of 90–100°F.

While the fire originally started in the cargo area, a subsequent explosion resulted in injuries to eight firefighters, including two with serious burns. All 21 crew members were uninjured in the fire and the cause of the fire is still unknown.

The vessel, Höegh Xiamen, is owned by Höegh Autoliners and during the time of the incident was being operated via charter by Grimaldi Group. The vessel was carrying a consignment of used cars intended for export to the West African market, according to JAXPORT.

Firefighters from Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department and Resolve Marine Group worked to extinguish the blaze with an ongoing focus on cooling the vessel’s exterior while fire tugs sprayed water on the vessel. An additional high capacity pump was also deployed to significantly increase the amount of water on the hull.

On 4 June, the 4,258 teu container ship Laura Maersk was disabled by engine room fire after suffering severe turbocharger breakdown about 443 km off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland, US, while en route from Algeciras, Spain, to Elizabeth, New Jersey.

According to Tom Boyd, media relations manager for Maersk North America, a minor fire was extinguished, and one burnt crew member was medically evacuated by a USCG helicopter to hospital.

“The cause of the turbocharger breakdown is unknown at this time and an investigation is under way. There is no further damage to the vessel and all cargo is intact,” said Boyd in a press statement.

The fire on Laura Maersk follows two other Maersk container ship fires earlier this year. The container ships Maersk Vilnius and Maersk Patras suffered engine fires in the same week in May.

According to the inaugural State of Maritime Safety report published by IHS Markit in April, despite media coverage suggesting there has been a stark rise in the number of total losses due to fire and explosion, IHS Markit’s Maritime & Trade data shows that the number of losses has remained largely consistent, with a mean average of 30.2 vessels a year.

However, the size of vessels lost to fires and explosions is slowly growing: 196,836 gt in 2019, compared with 156,287 gt in 2015. The uptick of incidents involving larger vessels does raise concerns over the effectiveness of fire detection and prevention systems available on board.