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Thursday, January 31, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Yacht-club fire cause unknown; boat losses estimated at $4 million

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Fire officials say tomorrow is the earliest they might know what caused the Seattle Yacht Club marina fire that sent 15 vessels to the bottom of Portage Bay and damaged as many as 10 others.

The boat on which the fire is believed to have started had yet to be raised and inspected yesterday, said Seattle Fire Marshal Gregory Dean.

Few other answers seemed apparent yesterday as anxious yacht-club boat owners gathered to learn about the Tuesday-night fire. Fire and club officials were unable to say when owners will be allowed to check their boats; access to the docks is restricted until the cause of the fire is determined.

Had a fireboat been stationed on Lake Union, which some have advocated for years, there would have been significantly less damage, Dean said.

The Fire Department's only boat, the Elliott Bay-based Chief Seattle, took an hour to reach the fire because it had to come through the Ballard Locks. The blaze was reported at 6:40 p.m. and was considered mostly out by 9, said department spokeswoman Lt. Sue Stangl.

"Would we like a fireboat on Lake Union? Of course we would," Dean said. But the decision to station one on Elliott Bay, lined by extensive, expensive property with a potential for great loss, was made in the 1970s and is something the department has had to live with, he said.

Douglas Platt, whose 31-foot boat was likely damaged because it was next to some of the most heavily damaged vessels, said urban development around Lake Union is a good reason to have a fireboat on the freshwater side of the Locks.

As it was, Dean said, firefighters had to string 200 yards of hose from firetrucks down the docks to the burning boats. The pipe that carries water along the dock couldn't be used because its spigot was at the center of the fire.

Two Seattle police boats, which have limited firefighting capacity, served as fire walls by spraying water on boats adjacent to the burning yachts.

Eventually so much water was drawn from fire hydrants to fight the marina blaze that the area supply fell enough to kick up sediment, making residential tap water cloudy in the Montlake and Capitol Hill neighborhoods.

While the cause of the blaze remains undetermined, boat losses are expected to run as high as $4 million, said Dick Johnson, vice commodore of the prestigious club that was established in 1892.

The fire was on Dock 3, one of four that juts out into Portage Bay. The yacht club houses 260 boats; about 75 were on Dock 3, Johnson said.

While the yacht club and its clubhouse can be seen from Highway 520, Dock 3 cannot.

Joyce Hedin, whose 36-foot powerboat Grand Dame was destroyed, said the loss of a vessel the family has owned for 17 years is very personal.

"The birthdays, the adventures, watching the Blue Angels" are just some of the memories, Hedin said. Her son, Adam, said, "You can replace the boat but not the memories."

It is impossible to know how much fuel spilled in the fire, but Paul Gallagher of Foss Environmental Services was confident most of it was contained within the 3,000 feet of boom placed around the sunken boats.

Skimmers will be used to take the fuel off the water.

Yacht Club officials say they plan to rebuild the dock, which had a wooden roof.

The city generally doesn't allow covered marinas to be built anymore, in part because they block views of the water — "which belongs to the public in general," said Alan Justad, spokesman for the Department of Design, Construction and Land Use. And it may affect marine habitat, he said.

That means the yacht club will have to conduct a thorough environmental review of the moorage before it rebuilds, Justad said.

But because the club had a dock in place before more-stringent environmental and land-use rules came into effect, he added, it's probable it will be allowed to build a covered dock to replace the one destroyed in the fire.

Dave Birkland can be reached at 206-464-2204 or at dbirkland@seattletimes.com.

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