Storage yard fire began in a boat but cause is undetermined

Charred boats littered the storage yard in the wake of the early morning blaze. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

An early Friday morning fire destroyed six boats and damaged four more at the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard storage yard in the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Business Park. Edgartown police believe the September 2 fire began in one of the boats stored at the yard. State fire marshal’s office investigators have so far been unable to determine the cause.

Also burned was a familiar food booth used by the Touchdown Club to raise funds at the Agricultural Fair and other events.

“The fire remains officially undetermined at this point,” Jennifer Mieth, spokesman for the fire marshal, said. “It’s being investigated by Edgartown fire and police, and State Police assigned to the state fire marshal’s office.”

After determining the fire began in a boat, investigators are working systematically to eliminate every possible cause. They have not yet been able to eliminate every scenario, so they list the cause as undetermined.

Edgartown fire chief Peter Shemeth was initially concerned that the fire may have been intentionally set.

“We’d like to be able to rule out arson,” Chief Shemeth said. “That’s why we had the state fire marshal’s office come down. There are several boats, there’s not a lot left to them, so its hard to tell.”

Mr. Shemeth said the investigation has turned up no evidence of arson. He said three fires in that general area in a short period of time initially raised suspicions.

Ms. Mieth said the investigation is still active, but the fire marshal needs more information to move forward. She appealed for help from the public.

“If anyone has any information about the fire, if they would contact the arson hotline, not because we think it’s arson, but that’s the number we use to leverage community information,” Ms. Mieth said.

The number to contact the fire marshal’s office is 1-800-682-9229. She said all calls are confidential, and anyone with information can call at any hour.

Fast moving fire

Shipyard owner Phil Hale and Martha’s Vineyard Airport manager Sean Flynn said the damage could have been far worse. Quick detection and quick response helped contain the fire and limit the losses.

The business park is located off Barnes Road, east of the airport. The shipyard leases a lot on which it stores boats.

Mr. Flynn said Shawn DeCosta, a member of the airport operations staff, was making his regular rounds through the business park when he saw the flames and called in the emergency, shortly after 3 am, Friday.

One of the first responders was Geoffrey Freeman, a captain on the Edgartown fire department, and also an operations specialist at the airport and supervisor of the airport’s rescue and firefighting force. Mr. Freeman drove quickly over to the airport fire garage and retrieved a specialized firefighting truck designed to spray foam on an aircraft fire. He began spraying foam on the burning boats as more help arrived.

“Those types of fires are exactly what our trucks are designed for,” Mr. Flynn said. “There were many boats saved by the quick response.”

At about the same time, Edgartown firefighters arrived and started getting foam on the fires. Oak Bluffs firefighters also responded. About 25 boats, most stored very close to each other, escaped damage.

Mr. Hale said that if the fire had struck earlier in the week, when many boat owners hauled out in advance of tropical storm Irene, many more boats might have been destroyed.

“A week ago we had the whole lot full of boats, and many went back in the water,” Mr. Hale said.

About nine hours earlier, Edgartown firefighters responded to a fire in a roll-off dumpster at the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse District transfer station, less than one mile away. The fire was fueled by combustible materials in the dumpster, which was full of construction debris.

That fire was extinguished quickly and did not affect the operations of the waste district.

Edgartown firefighters responded to a third fire, a small grass fire, off Meetinghouse Way on Monday.

Cheif Shemeth said there is no indication that the three fires are related.