Budget cut could shut down Bellingham's fire boat

BELLINGHAM - The city's fire boat could be eliminated as Fire Chief Bill Boyd looks for ways to trim his department's budget.

The boat - the Fire Belle - has been on the job since 1985. It has fought industrial fires and small boat fires in Squalicum Harbor. In July 2011, the Fire Belle and its crew of specially trained city firefighters helped extinguish a BNSF Railway trestle fire near Chuckanut Bay that threatened the only railroad line serving Bellingham from the south.

Eliminating the fire boat would mean an immediate savings of just $30,000 a year, but Boyd said the larger issue is the need for a new vessel to replace the 26-year-old Fire Belle, which could be an expense upwards of $500,000.

"It's living on borrowed time," Boyd said.

Getting rid of the boat is not something Boyd relishes, but he wants to focus the available money on maintaining basic fire and emergency medical service in the city.

"We're to the point where we can't cut any more," Boyd said.

When the Fire Belle first went into service, many of the older floats in Squalicum Harbor had no water supply for firefighting. Today, they are all equipped with standpipes. Boyd acknowledged that a boat can still come in handy for marina fires.

"If you were to get a fire off the end of G dock at Gate 3, that's about a quarter mile (from shore)," Boyd said.

Fire Capt. Tim Kays, who serves on the Fire Belle, said the water cannon atop the boat can deliver 1,000 gallons per minute - far more than what can be drawn from standpipes.

When there's a fire in the middle of a float lined with vessels, the Fire Belle can attack from the water side while other firefighters use the standpipes to attack from the shore side. The Fire Belle also can pull vessels out of a fire's path, or rescue people on moored vessels if they are trapped by flames, Kays said.

"Once the wind starts, and these plastic boats start burning, the heat put off by them is really extreme," Kays said. "It can get out of control in a hurry."

Kays agreed that the Fire Belle is showing her age, but its hull and engines are sound. He believes it could serve for another 10 years if money is available for maintenance. Right now, he said, the Fire Belle needs new alternators and pump motors.

While marina fires have been rare over the years, a 2006 fire at Squalicum Harbor that started in one boat's engine destroyed two other vessels, damaged the dock and left two boaters with minor burns before it could be extinguished.

David Webster, the city's chief administrative officer, said the railroad trestle fire was the only blaze the Fire Belle has had to handle in 2011, and the boat made but a single fire run in 2010 as well. With city finances tight, it's harder to justify maintaining fire boat service at the expense of citywide fire and emergency medical systems.

The final decision on the Fire Belle and the rest of the fire department's $21 million annual budget for 2012 will be up to the City Council, Webster said.

The Port of Bellingham owned the Fire Belle until 2007, when port commissioners voted to transfer the boat and responsibility for its upkeep to the city.

Dan Stahl, the port's marine services director, said it's up to the city to decide how to spend its fire department budget. Fire protection services would be adequate without the Fire Belle, he added.

Stahl noted that the city gets close to $300,000 in leasehold tax revenues from port tenants on and near the shore, including boats at Squalicum Harbor and businesses that occupy the port's waterfront real estate.

Stahl also noted that commercial tugboats are equipped with water cannons and can be pressed into service for fires at deep-water locations like the Bellingham Cruise Terminal and shipping terminal. A tugboat helped fight the 1992 blaze at Arrowac Seafoods, for example.

"The Fire Belle is definitely an asset," Stahl said. "We'd like to see it deployed, but it really is the city's call."