SAN DIEGO – Four days after the initial spark, the fire on a U.S. Navy warship was still burning as firefighting sailors Wednesday inched their way deeper into its compartments in a painstaking search to find every smoldering hot spot.
Experts say the stubborn fire on board the USS Bonhomme Richard illustrates how difficult ship blazes are to put out once they tear through a vessel.
There have been pockets of fire throughout the 840-foot (255-meter) amphibious assault ship that have flared since it began Sunday morning. The fire was reported first in its lower area where armored vehicles are parked and where heavy-duty cardboard boxes, rags and other maintenance supplies were being stored. It traveled upward to the well deck — a wide hangar type area — and took off from there, Navy officials have said.
The fire at one point reached up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (538 degrees Celsius), threatening to soften its steel.
“All shipboard fires are difficult to fight," said maritime lawyer Rod Sullivan, who served in the Navy. “It’s very difficult to choke off oxygen in open deck spaces," and then to follow the flames into all the nooks on a boat.
It's not uncommon for ship fires to take days to extinguish, he added, pointing to a fire last month on a car-carrying cargo ship that burned in Jacksonville, Florida, for eight days.
Adding to the difficulty of the Bonhomme Richard fire was the fact that it had been undergoing maintenance since 2018, so there was scaffolding and other equipment and debris in the way. That also got in the way of firefighters. One of the ship's fire suppression systems also was deactivated because of the maintenance project.
As of early Wednesday, helicopters had dumped 1,500 buckets of water on the ship, cooling the superstructure and flight deck to enable crews to move further inside the vessel and identify hot spots. They were battling two areas at the bow and the stern, Navy officials said. The fire was about 85% contained.