Bellingham firefighters training on new $1M fire boat

The city’s new fire boat, the Salish Star, has arrived in town and could be in service as soon as this fall.

Over the past few weeks, people already may have noticed crews taking the new boat out on Bellingham Bay for training, spraying thousands of gallons of water from two fire pumps. About 3,000 gallons of water per minute, to be exact.

“This has all the bells and whistles,” Bellingham Fire Capt. Michael Ray said while giving a tour of the boat Tuesday, July 14. “This boat is so much different from the old fire boat with the advance in electronics that are on board.”

The Salish Star has radar and chart plotting that can be overlaid so the driver can view both at the same time. Cameras adorn the outside of the cabin and can be hooked up to an infrared system that will allow firefighters to look for people and objects through thick smoke or fog or in the dark. The cabin can be pressurized to keep those inside safe from chemicals or particles in the air.

The boat replaces the Fire Belle, which was 36.5 feet long, with a nozzle that could pump 1,200 gallons of water per minute. It needed at least 3.5 feet of water for clearance, and had a top speed of about 14 knots, according to the fire department. By comparison, the Salish Star can get up to about 30 knots and move through water as shallow as 22 inches.

In operation since 1985, the Fire Belle was decommissioned and sold in late 2011 after city officials decided it wasn’t getting used enough to justify the cost to keep it.

Just five months after the boat was taken out of service, a fire in Squalicum Harbor killed a Bellingham couple living aboard their boat at G Dock East, about a quarter mile from shore. That fire took hours to extinguish without help from the Fire Belle and destroyed 10 other boats and a series of boathouses.

“This new boat can pump up to 3,000 gallons per minute. That’s quite a knockout punch when you’ve got a marina fire,” said Battalion Chief Chuck Henkel, who helped design the boat along with Bellingham Fire Capt. Eric Kohler. “This is kind of the shot in the arm this community needs after that fire.”

In addition to the increased water pumping capacity, there is storage for 50 gallons of firefighting foam, which is used to keep vapors down in the event of a fuel fire.

Twin diesel engines power the new 38-foot aluminum catamaran, Henkel said.

“If we’re going to Boulevard Park or something, what would have taken us 10 minutes in the Fire Belle, we can get there in just a couple minutes,” Kohler said.

The city hasn’t worked out agreements with other jurisdictions yet, but Henkel expected the boat could respond to places as far away as Anacortes if needed.

Twelve firefighters from Bellingham’s Fire Station 5 will staff the boat, eight of whom worked on the Fire Belle when it was still in operation.

The $1 million boat was largely funded by a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The city and the Port of Bellingham split the cost of $250,000 in matching funds, and the port is providing moorage for the vessel.

The port worked with the city to submit the grant, which was funded as part of a $93 million federal port security program. The program requires that the boat be used for security purposes in addition to fighting fires.

The plan for the boat had to address vulnerabilities identified by the Coast Guard, and enable the port to prevent, detect, respond and/or recover from attacks involving improvised explosive devices and other non-conventional weapons, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

New technology on the boat also sends updates via text message to Henkel and others, so the department knows in real time everything from when the door to the cabin has been opened to whether there is a leak detected.

Salish Star was built by Moose Boats, Inc. of Petaluma, Calif.

The city will host a christening ceremony for the boat at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Zuanich Point Park visitor dock on Squalicum Harbor.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog and follow her on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.

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