The United States’ Only Heavy Icebreaker Catches Fire off Antarctica

icebreakerImage Courtesy: USCG

A fire broke out on board the US Coast Guard (USCG) Cutter Polar Star off Antarctica on February 10, 2019. 

As informed, the fire started in the ship’s incinerator room about 650 miles north of McMurdo Sound.

After initial response efforts using four fire extinguishers failed, fire crews spent almost two hours extinguishing the fire.

Fire damage was contained inside the incinerator housing, while firefighting water used to cool exhaust pipe in the surrounding area damaged several electrical systems and insulation in the room, according to the USCG.

Repairs are already being planned for the Polar Star’s upcoming maintenance period.

No injuries were reported, and the cause of the fire is under investigation.

“It’s always a serious matter whenever a shipboard fire breaks out at sea, and it’s even more concerning when that ship is in one of the most remote places on Earth,” Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of the US Coast Guard’s Pacific Area, said.

Commissioned in 1976, the 43-year old ship is operating beyond its expected 30-year service life. The Polar Star crew recently completed Operation Deep Freeze, an annual joint military service mission in support of the National Science Foundation, the lead agency for the United States Antarctic Program.

The Feb. 10 fire was not the first engineering casualty faced by the Polar Star crew this deployment. While en route to Antarctica, one of the ship’s electrical systems began to smoke, causing damage to wiring in an electrical switchboard, and one of the ship’s two evaporators.

The ship also experienced a leak from the shaft that drives the ship’s propeller, which halted icebreaking operations to send scuba divers into the water to repair the seal around the shaft.

In addition, the Polar Star also suffered ship-wide power outages while breaking ice. Crew members spent nine hours shutting down the ship’s power plant and rebooting the electrical system in order to remedy the outages.

Presently, the USCG maintains two icebreakers – the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is a medium icebreaker, and the Polar Star, the United States’ only heavy icebreaker. If a catastrophic event, such as getting stuck in the ice, were to happen to the Healy in the Arctic or to the Polar Star near Antarctica, the USCG is left without a self-rescue capability.

The Coast Guard has been the sole provider of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability since 1965 and is seeking to increase its icebreaking fleet with six new polar security cutters in order to ensure continued national presence and access to the Polar Regions.

After leaving Antarctica, the Polar Star crew arrived in New Zealand for a port call, and they are presently en route to their homeport of Seattle.

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