Fire breaks out aboard America’s sole heavy icebreaker

Photo: US Coast Guard

A fire broke out recently aboard the US Coast Guard’s heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Star, the Coast Guard has informed.

According to the service, the fire broke out in the ship’s incinerator room about 650 miles north of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, on February 10.

The 150-member crew of the cutter 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.

Repairs are already being planned for the Polar Star’s upcoming maintenance period. The incinerator will need to be full functional before next year’s mission.

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,” said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of the US Coast Guard’s Pacific Area. “The crew of the Polar Star did an outstanding job – their expert response and determination ensured the safety of everyone aboard.”

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.

This year marks the 63rd iteration of the annual operation, and the Polar Star crew departed their homeport of Seattle Nov. 27 for their sixth deployment in as many years and travelled more than 11,200 miles to Antarctica.

Upon arrival, the Polar Star broke nearly 17 miles of ice, six to ten feet thick, in order to open a channel through McMurdo Sound. Once complete, the crew refueled at McMurdo Station, the United States’ main logistics hub in Antarctica.

On Jan. 30, the Polar Star escorted the container ship Ocean Giant through the channel, enabling a 10-day offload of nearly 500 containers with 10 million pounds of goods that will resupply McMurdo Station, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and other U.S. field camps.

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Engineering Challenges

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 used to make drinkable water failed. The electrical switchboard was repaired by the crew, and the ship’s evaporator was repaired after parts were received during a port call in Wellington, New Zealand.

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. A hyperbaric chamber on loan from the U.S. Navy aboard the ship allows Coast Guard divers to make external emergency repairs and inspections of the ship’s hull at sea.

The Polar Star also experienced 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.

Reserved for Operation Deep Freeze each year, the Polar Star spends the Southern Hemisphere summer breaking ice near Antarctica, and when the mission is complete, the Polar Star returns annually to dry dock in order to complete critical maintenance and repairs in preparation for the next Operation Deep Freeze mission. Once out of dry dock, the ship returns to Antarctica, and the cycle repeats.

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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