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San Diego Navy ship burns a fourth day as crews make ‘significant progress’ in fire fight

The Navy used helicopters for water drops over the fire that continues to burn aboard Bonhomme Richard at San Diego Naval Base on Monday, July 13, 2020. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Firefighting teams have made “significant progress” extinguishing the four-day-old fire onboard the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego Wednesday, but there’s still a lot of work to be done before the fire is declared extinguished, a Navy spokeswoman said.

In an early-morning statement Wednesday the Navy updated the number of personnel who have been treated for firefighting injuries. As of Wednesday morning, 40 sailors and 23 civilians have been treated for fire-related injuries such as smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion.

But the Navy provided few details on the progress of firefighting efforts. Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a spokeswoman for Naval Surface Forces Pacific in San Diego, told the Union-Tribune the Navy doesn’t have “a whole lot more to report.”

“There’s some smoke — less smoke than the last 24 hours,” Schwegman said when reached by phone. “(The fire) is nowhere near what is was.”

Fire crews are setting re-flash watches to make sure smoldering fires don’t again flare up, she said, adding that crews still have to go through the ship “space by space.”

“The (Bonhomme Richard) is huge,” Schwegman said.

The fire on the 844-foot ship began around 8:30 a.m. Sunday and sent acrid plumes of smoke into the San Diego skies for two days. By Tuesday morning, the plume was noticeably smaller, although the smell of the fire stayed in the air in neighborhoods nearest the base.

Firefighting crews from a dozen San Diego-based ships — more than 400 sailors — are assisting federal firefighters from bases throughout Southern California fighting the fire. Navy helicopters from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 3 have provided round-the-clock water drops onto the ship since late Sunday, totaling more that 1,500 drops, the Navy said.

At the height of the conflagration, temperatures onboard reached 1,000 degrees F.

Several photos of the damage to the ship’s island superstructure and interior were posted online over the last two days, showing entire spaces blackened by fire and smoke as well as at least two large holes in the island’s roof. The forward mast — located on the island — collapsed early Monday.

Navy officials have not commented on the damage in the online photos, nor has it released any photos of damage.

Schwegman said Wednesday that 84 sailors who lived on the Bonhomme Richard full-time have been moved to living quarters on Naval Base San Diego. While it’s unclear exactly which spaces on board the ship have burned, the crew’s living quarters are among them.

The Navy also is warning people not to fall for fundraising scams.

The ship’s Facebook page asked people wanting to donate to avoid GoFundMe drives, saying those are not “authorized, approved or endorsed” by the ship or the Navy.

Instead, the San Diego Fleet and Family Support Center recommends donating through the Navy and Marine Corps Relief Society, the Support the Enlisted Project and USO San Diego.

The Bonhomme Richard was nearing the end of an almost two-year, $250 million maintenance and system upgrade meant to modernize the ship and to allow the fifth-generation Marine fighter, the F-35B, to operate on the ship.

That maintenance activity — which includes extensive cabling and duct work through the ship’s doors, hatches and scuttles — likely played a part in the fire’s relentless spread, Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, the commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3, said Tuesday. Other maintenance-related system outages, such as the Halon gas firefighting system, also might have played a part.

Once the fire started below in a lower vehicle storage area, it traveled upward to the “well deck,” which is a hangar-like open area with a lot of oxygen to fuel the fire, he said.

The Navy uses amphibious assault ships to deploy Marines in amphibious landings and as a sort of light-attack aircraft carrier. During operations, the ships conduct flight operations with helicopters and jet aircraft, such as the AV-8B Harrier and its replacement, the F-35 B Lightning.

While deployed, these ships carry more than 2,000 sailors and Marines, but only 160 sailors were on the ship when the fire broke out.


© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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