Photo by Mike Meadows

This article is excerpted from the book, "Fireboats," by permission of the author and his publisher, Conway Enterprises, Inc.  The complete history of American fireboats, including several hundred spectacular photos, is told in Paul Ditzel's latest book, "Fireboats," which will shortly be published.  the book can be ordered at a special pre-publication price of $24.95 via credit card orders to the publisher, 1-800-457-2400.  Ditzel, as most Grapevine readers will recall, was the author of "Century of Service," the 100-year history of the LAFD, which was part of the Centennial Book sponsored by the Los Angeles Firemen's Relief Association.  "Century of Service," now in soft cover, also is available through the toll-free number at $39.95. Part of the proceeds from the sale of each LAFD book is sent to the Los Angeles Firemen's Relief Association.

By Paul Ditzel


"Dispatch All Boats!"

   The Pre-dawn fire, seen by many but reported by nobody, smoldered for hours under a wharf at Berth 73 in the heavily-industrialized Port of Los Angeles.  Commercial fishermen and others who noticed something white oozing from the base of  high voltage light post on the wharf dismissed what they saw as trivial, even though they also heard crackling and popping.  No point in bothering firefighters they agreed.  High tide was due.  That would surely squelch whatever the problem was under the wharf.

  Smoke worsened as the fire gestated along the spiderweb of wooden joists, stringers and pilings that supported the asphalt covered timber deckwork.  These underpinnings were coated wit wood-preserving creosote, a highly flammable coal tar derivative and a known carcinogen.  Gnawing with increasing speed and fury along the wharf's underbelly, what began as a relative insignificant electrical short circuit suddenly burst into a full-blown fire with disastrous potential.

  Flames stabbing from under the wharf were crowned with thick clouds of creosote-impregnated smoke.  Heat radiated out toward commercial fishing boats that were moored alongside the 1700-foot-long wharf.  Still nobody turned in an alarm.  At least two fishermen were trying to reach the fire with a small hose when, hundreds of yards away, a security guard saw smoke veiling the glare and called the Los Angeles Fire Department.

  At 4:19 that Sunday morning, January 31, 1988, the alarm was broadcast to the nearest fire companies.  In addition to five engines and two aerial ladder trucks, the alarm called out two fireboats, including Boat 2, the Ralph J. Scott, one of the world's most powerful.  Over half a century old and named after a former fire chief, Boat 2 packs a wallop of more than one million gallons of water an hour through 13 guns.

MARCH, 1989


  Hurrying from their Berth 85 firehouse along the Main Channel,the Scott's eight crewmen boarded the 99-foot-long craft and prepared to cast off.  Pilot Bill Dahlquist, standing at the control console in the pilothouse, switched on the three diesel propulsion engines. Below deck, the aft-mounted, side-by-side engines began to warm up.

  Also below deck and inside the glass-enclosed Quiet Room just forward of the propulsion power plants, Engineers Jim Choner and John Rassmussen took up their stations.  Arrayed in front of them on the bulkhead-mounted console were pumping and propulsion throttles, gauges and a rainbow of walnut-shaped indicator lights.  Choner and Rassmussen began to idle the four diesel pumping engines located in pairs toward the bow.  Altogether, the seven engines, even at idle, raised the noise level outside the Quiet Room to a thunderously high decibel reading.

  Berth 73 was a quick run for the nearest land-based fire company, Task Force 48, consisting of two engines and an aerial ladder truck.  Pulling onto the wharf and seeing the scope of the rapidly-spreading fire and sensing the difficulty of reaching it with land-based companies, Task Force Commander Gerald Ramaekers radioed the LAFD alarm office:  "Dispatch all Boats! . . . This is a major emergency!"  And thus was set in motion the seldon-seen response of all five fireboats in the LAFD fleet.  He also called for more land companies.

  Ramaeker's broadcast was heard in Boat 2's pilothouse and in the Quiet Room.  The fireboat firefighters knew that a long, hot and smoky fire lay ahead of them.  Dahlquist eased ahead on Boat 2's throttles.  The Scott quickly gathered speed as Dahlquist steered a wide, sweeping arch to starboard.  He set the boat's course along mid-channel to avoid creating wake damage to small boats moored alongside and near the famous tourist attractions, Ports O'Call Village, with its restaurants and small shops.

  Glancing off the starboard bow, Captain Don Hibbard saw a column of smoke masking a glare.  Judging from the size of the loomup, the veteran waterfront firefighter expected this fire would, as the history of wharf fires has shown many times over take many hours to control.  Concealed in the thick creosote smoke, moreover, were the omnipresent dangers of fighting wharf fires which historically cause many injuries and sometimes deaths.  At the very least, irritants in the smoke, even with protective breathing apparatus, could cause skin burns and respiratory problems for firefighters.

  Dead ahead, as Boat 2 neared the entrance to the Southern Pacific Slip leading to Berth 73, Dahlquist saw the rotating blue light and silhouetted of fast-approaching Fireboat 1, with its two crewmen and Supervising Mate Fred Stoddard at the helm.  The speedboat-sized craft can pump 750 gallons a minute, but its primary purpose is as a launching platform for SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) divers.  While the boat skimmed along the Main Channel, its two firefighters were slipping into their wet suits preparing to floating a highly hazardous attack directly underneath the wharf.

  Entering the slip, fireboat firefighters saw many immediate and potential problems.  Both sides of the narrow slip were cluttered with dozens of fishing vessels, mostly old, mostly big and mostly wooden.  Snuggling together by as many as three abreast, they were moored in an almost solid bow-to-stern line along the wharf.  The six nearest the fire were in imminent danger of bursting into flames.  The heat raised paint blisters on the wooden hulls and wheelhouses of the fishing boats. Somehow these-- and other boats in the slip--would have to be moved before the Scott could effectively bring its underwharf nozzles to bear.




  The fire was spreading several hundred feet north and south along Beth 73.  Lapping flames threatened igloo-shaped piles of fishing nets on top of the wharf.  In the northern path of the fire stood the Fisherman's Cooperative Association Building.  Nudged by a slight breeze, flames were traveling faster in a southerly direction toward the end of the wharf where an oil storage tank farm jutted into the Main Channel.

  About the only favorable elements in the worsening scenario were the high tide and the wood barrier skirts at several hundred feet intervals along the underside of the wharf.  Extending down towards the water, the skirts would at least slow the snaking heat and flames.  The high tide, moreover, narrowed the fire-feeding oxygen space between the wharf and the water.

  Battalion 6 Commander Bill Burmester, calling for additional apparatus, created a North and South Division of land companies to mount an assault from each end of the wharf.  Captain Hibbard hurried to the stern of Boat 2 where, as Marine Division Commander, he would have the best overall view while directing all fireboat and SCUBA operations with his handie-talkie radio.

  As flames lapped out from under the wharf, Hibbard doubted that the Anna Maria and at least four other large fishing boats could be saved.  The rapidly worsening situation allowed no time to await the arrival of Coast Guard help in moving the vessels.  Radiated heat barred anybody from approaching them to release mooring lines.

  Bringing Boat 2 around to starboard until the bow pointed at the fire, Dahlquist saw a 30-foot opening between the bow of the Anna Maria and the stern of another big boat.  Hibbard decided to attack there, while daring to hope that streams from Boats 2 and 1 would take some of the energy out of the fire before the fishing boats burst into flames.  It was not to be.  While Dahlquist eased the Scott slowly ahead, the Anna Maria and the boat ahead of it ignited.  Almost immediately, heat touched off large piles of fishing nets stacked on the dock.

  More bad news was imminent as Boat 2 plowed into the smoke.  Fireboat firefighters felt the combined heat from the blazing wharf dead ahead and that from the burning fishing boats a few feet off their port and starboard sides.  Mate Mike Corcoran stood ready at the bow turret gun while Firefighters Glenn Thorson, Frank Vidovich and "Buzz" Smith crouched at the bulwark-mounted nozzles.

  Dahlquist alerted on-deck firefighters that he was about to call for pumping to begin and gave four blasts on the boat's air horn; the warning signal to land companies that heavy stream operations was going to start.  Dahlquist rang the pilothouse annunciator which sounded a bell in the Quiet Room.  Choner an Rassmussen saw their annunciator's red arrow move to "START." The engineers pushed the pumps' throttles forward.  Dahlquist rang three more times and the arrow swung around to 50 pounds pressure per-square-inch (psi), then to 100 and finally to 150 as water surged through the mains.

  A 3000-gallon-per-minute stream gushed from the bow turret as Corcoran directed the solid stream which knocked down fires among the stacks of fishing nets.  The bulwark nozzles began spurting 750-gallons-per-minute at 125-150 psi.  Five yellow lights and gauges on the Quiet Room control panel indicated the bow turret, three bulwark nozzles and an underwharf nozzle which was remotely controlled by Dahlquist in the pilot house, were delivering battering ram streams.  These salvos splattered against pilings, stringers and joists.  Spray ricocheting into the firefighters' faces smeared the pilothouse windows.

MARCH, 1989



  Still more yellow lights blinked on in the Quiet Room as Dahlquist activated the bow port and starboard underwater thruster nozzles. Alternately using these jet streams to hold the boat in position, Dahlquist rotated the bow from side to side to bring more nozzles to bear in a cascading water sweep.  With the bow buried in smoke, it was impossible to tell exactly how close Boat 2 was to the wharf.  The fender on the bow protected the Scott as it bumped into the wharf before Dahlquist eased back.

  The awesome roar of the fire streams slamming against the pilings and the churning of the pumping and propulsion engines precluded voice communications between the pilothouse and on-deck firefighters who guided Dahlquist with hand signals.

  In the Quiet Room, meanwhile, the engines' heat made the cubicle sauna-like as the boat's ventilation system sucked in wisps of eye-smarting creosote smoke to add to the engineers' discomfort.  Contact with the pilothouse was by bell and a voice-magnified phone.  Though soundproofed with glass and other protections, the din of the pumping and propulsion engines created a nerve-racking invasion of the otherwise Quiet Room.  Outside the room, the high-pitched whine required ear protectors as visual checks of the engines' performance were regularly made.

  The three other fireboats in the LAFD fleet were arriving and calling Hibbard for orders.  Already in battle, Boat 1 was directing its 750-gallon-per-minute bow monitor stream onto the blazing Anna Maria.  The fireboat's sister vessels, Boat 3 and Boat 5, were ordered to prepare for deployment of SCUBA divers to set up water curtains at the north and south flanks of the fire.  Boat 4, the 9000-gallon-per-minute Bethel F. Gifford, was to assist Boat 2 in the frontal assault.

  Suddenly came an alarming report.  Stoddard radioed Marine Division Commander Hibbard that Boat 1 had been rammed by a fishing vessel.  Boat 1 was taking on water fast and sinking.  Hibbard ordered Boat 5 to go to the aid of her stricken sister craft.  While Hibbard anxiously awaited a further damage assessment, the Scott's guns continued to pound the fire.  Boat 1's radio message was encouraging.  The bilge was flooding, not from the ramming, but because a pump hose had snapped.  Boat 5 pumped out the bilge while repairs were made.  Both craft soon were again ready for battle.

  Perhaps the best illustration of LAFD underwharf firefighting tactics is to compare hem to a naval assault against an entrenched enemy.  Just as the heavy guns of battleships soften the beachhead preparatory to an invasion, so do the LAFD's two largest boats, the Scott and the Gifford, batter underwharf fires.  SCUBA firefighters from the three smaller craft, meanwhile, carry the attack to the vulnerable flanks of the fire.  Later, when the big boats have done their job, the SCUBA divers will move in to hit the stubborn pockets of fire that master streams could not reach because the underwharf's grid work deflected them. 

  And so it was before dawn that the teams of SCUBA divers--each with four polyurethane floats with nozzles and interconnected by hoselines supplied by the small boats--dumped their gear overboard and leaped into the water.  Much like surf-boarders, the SCUBA divers clung to their floats while using the backward thrust of water pressure to propel themselves into the darkness under the wharf.

  Each two-man team--in line with skin-diving's Buddy System for safety--lashed their large floats to pilings at the north and south flanks of the fire.  Cone-shaped sprays from each float-mounted nozzle overlapped as the SCUBA divers formed a water curtain past which the flames would not pass.

  Glancing out Boat 2's port window, Dahlquist saw the Anna Maria's mooring line burn, separate and drop.  Seizing the opportunity, Dahlquist brought Boat 2 around to port and nosed the bow against the Anna Maria's hull, forcing the blazing fishing boat to swing clear of the wharf.  On-deck firefighters, together with those on the wharf, played cooling streams onto the brining and smocking Anna Maria, which repeatedly bumped Boat 2.



  Hibbard directed Boat 5 to tow the Anna Maria to the opposite side of the slip where the remaining fire would be controlled with the aid of land-based companies.  As the Anna Maria was being moved, flames reached stores of ammunition use by fishermen to shoot sharks preying on their catch.  Hundreds of rounds of exploding ammunition added to the pandemonium in the narrow slip as fishermen, swarming aboard their vessels, stampeded to safety in the Main Channel.

  Dozens off fishing boats moving helter-skelter toward the channel created still more problems for fireboat firefighters.  Many boat owners, panicking, skimmed dangerously close to the fireboats. Dahlquist constantly glanced aft to make certain the stern area was clear as he maneuvered the Scott to better focal points of attack along the burning wharf which was now clear of boats.

  The Marine Division's battle proceeded in tandem with that of land-based North and South Division. Calls for more help resulted in a total LAFD response including 21 engines, eight aerial ladders, auxiliary equipment, including a rig to supply and refill breathing apparatus air bottles and a helicopter of aerial reconnaissance.

   Moving in from the north and south topsides of the wharf, firefighters opened pizza pan-sized metal lids which provide underwharf access.  Attaching Bresnan nozzles to their 2 1/2-inch hoselines, firefighters lowered them into the smoke and heat spewing from the openings.  The nine ports on each whirling Bresnan directed upward and outward spray patterns of between 600 and 800 gallons per minute.  Soon, engine companies would begin supplying hoselines of the SCUBA firefighters to free the small boats for better observation of the divers and other jobs consistent with the waterside attack.

  Arriving from their Hollywood station, Heavy Utility 27's Apparatus Operator Tony Zar and his partner, Firefighter John McDaniel, began jackhammering additional holes along the inches-thick wharf.  Each hole enabled another Bresnan to begin spinning a fire-suppressing water web under the wharf.

  Slowly and arduously, the combined teamwork of marine and land companies gained the upper hand.  When no more flames were visible from the slip, SCUBA divers, guiding small attack floats and using the back pressure in their hoselines, moved in from both flanks to kill residual fires.  The fire was fully-controlled shortly after dawn--less than three hours after the first alarm. 

  This was a remarkable achievement.  If history had repeated itself, a wharf fire of this magnitude and spreading among massive numbers of old wooden fishing boats, would have taken perhaps 12 hours to control.  Dozens of firefighters could have been expected to be injured and perhaps several killed.  Property losses would have been catastrophic.  Testifying to the successful outcome are at least three facts:

  First, there were no significant injuries.  Second, only six of around 100 fishing vessels were damaged.  Most of them could be repaired.  And thirdly: from the time firefighters found flames moving along a several-hundred-foot-long front until containment, the fire spread only an additional 40-90 feet.

  That this traditionally worst possible scenario resulted in an exemplary outcome demonstrates how far waterfront firefighting tactics have progressed since those first hand-operated fireboats went into service more than a century ago.

MARCH, 1989


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