Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fire Safety

During our delivery of Citla to La Paz in November, we witnessed the horrific fire aboard Ker-Tidou, a Privilege 495 catamaran. If there is any silver lining to this tragedy, it is that it occurred in an anchorage (as opposed to off-shore) and the owner escaped without serious injury.

We are not certain what led to this fire, but the pangero on the Gordo Jr. fuel boat indicated
that he heard it was a burst propane line. Since the fire seemed to start inside the cabin and grew within minutes from a small plume of smoke to an all encompassing inferno, we guessed the flexible hose between the bulkhead and the stove may have been the cause. Given the wear on this connection due to the movement of gimbaled stoves, along with possible chafe, it seems reasonable that this may have been the culprit.

Since we didn't hear a distinct "explosion" near the start of the fire, we
assumed this wasn't due to a propane leak that occurred over time into the boat, but rather a spontaneous leak that had an ignition source near by. It may have been something as innocent as heating water for morning tea. Once ignited, the propane would have acted like a blow torch spewing fire out of a whipping hose end. Without being able to shut down the on-board solenoid valve to the tank, the fire would continue to grow and spread.

Whatever the cause, this incident reminded us not to become complacent about the use of our stove and oven and to review proper safety precautions when using it. Fortunately, Citla has a number of redundancies when it comes to propane safety. In addition to a proper propane locker with a solenoid shut off at the tank, there is also an emergency propane shut off switch, which controls a secondary solenoid before the propane enters the stove. This switch is located on our aft bulkhead, in the galley, within easy reach of the person at the stove. The last safety device on Citla is a propane sensor installed directly under the Force 10 stove. The indicator and alarm for this sensor is located directly next to the emergency shut off switch.When both solenoids are switched "on", we allow a few more moments before starting the stove to insure we have the continuous green light indicating the absence of free propane around the stove.

These mechanical safety devices, while important, should be viewed as contingencies in case individual attentiveness fails. Routine inspection of the hose and connections should be made regularly. In addition to this routine maintenance, discipline in operation of the stove must be followed. While we used to shut off the valve at the tank after each usage, when we were cruising for months we only shut off the propane at the tank during long passages or when we'd leave the boat for a period of time. Otherwise, we'd leave the valve open and put our trust in the redundant solenoids and propane sensor to keep us safe at anchor or in a marina. When operating the stove, we only leave the solenoids on while cooking; as soon as the flame is out, we shut down both the emergency shut-off as well as the main solenoid valve at the tank (this switch is located on our main electrical panel).

As an additional precaution, whoever is cooking is obligated to maintain watch in the galley as long as the propane is on. From a safety perspective, it is unacceptable to leave the stove unattended while it is in-use or ready for use. The emergency switch is useless if there is no one present to use it.

While the fire in Tortugas was horrible and left us sickened, it did serve as a reminder to review our own practices when it comes to safety aboard.


Mid-Life Cruising! said...

This post comes at a great time for us! We have an alcohol stove on our Catalina 30, and after trying to light it for the first time ... we've decided we'd like to replace it with a propane stove. This won't happen until next summer, but this is great advice! Have a great Thanksgiving!

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