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Old 15-08-2008, 20:10   #1
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Alcohol Stoves and Fighting Fires

While at anchor at Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays, we had the misfortune of our alcohol stove catching fire, nearly burning us down to the waterline. If we weren’t actually watching the stove at the time, it could have easily turned out a nightmare. Here’s what happened…

Sunny Spells (S.V. Sunny Spells · The chronicle of Sailing Vessel Sunny Spells) is fitted with a MaxiMarine alcohol stove (two burner with grill) of fairly recent vintage, installed on gimbals. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the procedure for lighting the stove, which feels a bit like starting a barely controlled fire. A little methylated spirit (metho) is dripped into a tray around the burner and lit to pre-heat the burner. This liquid metho burns and heats up the burner itself. Once the burner is hot enough to vaporize the metho, the alcohol flow is turned on again and the metho vaporizes and burns cleanly, a bit like a propane stove.

Getting just enough metho into the tray initially is a bit tricky, and you either don’t have enough or the alcohol burns quite vigorously while you watch it (very nervously).

On this occasion, we had all three burners going, including the grill. For some reason which I still can’t determine, the metho started pouring out of one of the burners (I suspect the grill), flooding the bottom of the stove and then running onto the cabin sole. When this caught alight, it was seconds before we had a roaring fire!

Fortunately, the fire blanket was close to hand and this was quickly thrown over the fire and I then closed all the control knobs on the stove. Unfortunately, the fire was still burning and getting out of control. I then grabbed the fire extinguisher, took a couple of seconds to remove the safety pin and work out which way to point it, and then discharged it into the fire under the fire blanket… The fire went out instantaneously - to our combined relief! The fire blanket had helped to slow down the fire, but in future I’ll be grabbing the fire extinguisher at the same time!

To say we were all a bit shaken, if not stirred, is an understatement. In the seconds before using the extinguisher I was about to urge everyone to abandon ship, it was that close…

The inside of the boat was covered in powder, a substance we found pretty difficult to clean up. We took the stove outside, cleaned it and then started the two burners (not the grill) on deck, where it operated flawlessly. The stove was reinstalled and used for the rest of the trip without any incident.

The problem now, of course, is that I don’t trust the devil…
I’ve learned a lot from the experience though:
  • In my initial safety briefing I concentrated on sea safety (MOB procedures, harnesses etc..) but we didn’t cover the fire-extinguishers, which I left for a later briefing which never happened. When I briefed the crew on the use of the stove I eplained the use of the fire-blanket, but the most experienced crew member, who had used an alcohol stove before, was on the helm at the time. Of course, she was the one doing the cooking when the stove decided to go up in flames! Lesson 1: make sure the crew is briefed on fire fighting and that they all get the opportunity to handle the fire blanket and fire extinguishers.
  • I was intrigued by my subconscious resistance to firing a $20 fire extinguisher while the boat was going up in flames… Lesson 2: Be mentally prepared to use the fire extinguisher.
  • I fumbled with the fire extinguisher: first I couldn’t get it out of its bracket, then I had trouble getting the safety pin out and, finally, I had to force myself to loook at it carefully to find the trigger and make sure the nozzle was pointing the right way (while having a very urgent, flaming distraction in front of me). Lesson3: Familiarize yourself and the crew with the fire extinguishers so you can use them with your eyes shut.
It does raise the old question again about cooking on board: propane vs alcohol? I don’t know the answer to this one. I do feel a bit biased against the alcohol stove now though, but is an explosion better than a fire?
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Old 16-08-2008, 08:58   #2
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You're not the first with this experience. I had a close call myself in the marina perfectly flat. I thought OMG what if I was at sea. Next
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Old 16-08-2008, 09:00   #3
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Next day it was in the rubbish, and a new propane with locker installed within the week. Glad to hear everyone is safe!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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Old 16-08-2008, 11:21   #4
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Thats a great lesson for everyone gmalan.

As redundant and seemingly worthless as it might seem to some people, I always start my cruises out with a safety talk. It cant hurt to remind people about safety procedures, danger areas of the boat and the safety rules. These include Person Overboard and Fire procedures.
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Old 16-08-2008, 11:41   #5
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a firefighting course will teach u all that; basic certificate is theoretical; advanced is practical -> how to fight fire in dark; how to use fire extinguisher; how to close the valve on propane tank while the fire is blowing through the valve etc.
lessons are not expensive
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Old 16-08-2008, 13:41   #6
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a firefighting course will teach u all that; basic certificate is theoretical; advanced is practical -> how to fight fire in dark; how to use fire extinguisher; how to close the valve on propane tank while the fire is blowing through the valve etc.
lessons are not expensive

OOOHHHH MANNNN.

How do you do that!
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Old 16-08-2008, 14:04   #7
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a firefighting course will teach u all that; basic certificate is theoretical; advanced is practical -> how to fight fire in dark; how to use fire extinguisher; how to close the valve on propane tank while the fire is blowing through the valve etc.
lessons are not expensive

These are great courses to take. I had to take them to work on megayachts. I took one at Resolve Fire in Ft Lauderdale. They simulated burning boats, we had to find our way out of a smoke filled ship (no visibility) crawling on the ground, used extinguishers and firehoses on "galley fires" as well as general fires, etc... all in 99 degree FL heat!

It was intense, but what a course!

Highly recommended.

PS: My wife also completed this course.
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Old 16-08-2008, 15:39   #8
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OOOHHHH MANNNN.

How do you do that!
firefighters still didn't let students do it; u approach the tank with spraying the fire extinguisher at the fire and close the valve with a tow or something but the interesting thing was that firefighters "played" with that tank a bit; thay were rolling it on the side and even held it up side down while the tank was blowing fire from the valve and still no explosion

of course u can find these courses in maritime schools (STCW convention) but land firefighting courses will probably be ok too
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Old 16-08-2008, 16:09   #9
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of course u can find these courses in maritime schools (STCW convention) but land firefighting courses will probably be ok too

Here's the link to Resolve in Ft Lauderdale:

Resolve Fire | Fire & Hazard Response, Inc.

It might be a little over the top, but boy does it prepare you for shipboard fires.

Plus, it was *incredibly* interesting and fun to learn. Just a quick read through the front page of their website shows you what we learned. Cool stuff!
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Old 16-08-2008, 16:53   #10
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Lesson 4, have a spare extinguisher or two! Just because you blew off the extinguisher doesn't mean the trip is over.

Also propane tank fires are da'bomb, so to speak. On dry land we generally let them burn, just keep the tank cool. You know where the fuel is when it's on fire. But if the fire is put out without the supply shut off then you have a real problem. Fuel is just itching for an ignition source. And if the relief pops off then you have a whole other beast.
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Old 17-08-2008, 06:25   #11
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Alcohol and water mix quite easily so throwing water on an alcohol fire will extinguish it and a propane tank that is quite happy venting (even if the vented gasses are burning) is quite safe to approach and turn off as long as you shield yourself from the heat. It's when naked flame impinges on the tank weakening it and at the same time heating the contents thus causing a fracture that you get a B.L.E.V.E. (Boiling Liquid Escaping Vapour Cloud Explosion). Believe me you don't want to be around when that happens. Sometimes I miss my previous life as a firefighter.
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Old 22-08-2008, 07:23   #12
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we love our alcohol stove, but it is a passive type, no pressurized alcohol for us. That is of course our preference. Since our boat was never fitted with propane lockers we opted for alcohol rather than propane. Every fuel has its pros and cons.
We both participated in a course with some practical fire fighting in it. Yes we have more fire exstinguishers than are legally required.
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Old 22-08-2008, 08:02   #13
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We had a pressurized alcohol stove on our 1963 Rhodes Reliant and I can tell you I would never-ever-have one again. I can also tell you that pitching water on burning alcohol merely splashes burning alcohol around and had we not an old woolen army blanket handy at the time I would not be here writing this comment today.

Our subsequent boat had a CNG stove that was safe and effective. The only reason we don't have one today is the fact that obtaining CNG cylinders or refills is all but impossible in Florida or any place we might take our current yacht.

FWIW...

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Old 22-08-2008, 08:02   #14
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Glad you got it put out! Those universal dry powder extinguishers are cheap, but everyone who actually has used one has the same comment about the damned powder getting all over. I'm not sure but I think the new foam extinguishers would be equally effective, and not a whole lot more expensive.

If you go back to using alcohol, you might want to look at a jelly/paste instead of using spirits to preheat the burners. If you can't get one commercially (I know they used to be available, but don't know the brand names) you can dissolve plain canning wax in paraffin oil (it takes a few days) to get a similar paste. That way you just squeeze a little out, like toothpaste, on the burner. Nothing to drip or spill and easy to measure, it will stay put while it preheats.

Personally? I'd rather eat cold food than use alcohol. I just don't like cold burners, invisible flames, the moisture it gives off...the whole package.
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Old 22-08-2008, 08:11   #15
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everyone who actually has used one has the same comment about the damned powder getting all over.

Had one go off in my first boat (the 23' Kells) after a nice day of a failed motor and 14' seas. I was moving the extinguisher from one place to another, hit the brittle, old nozzle head and the nozzle head cracked. The whole fire extinguisher discharged in an "explosion" in my salon.

The friend I had who was driving the launch nearby said it looked like I caught fire, with white "smoke" pouring from my compainionway.

I never was able to get all that stuff out of nooks and crannies of the boat.
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