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How Common Are Boat Fires? What Are Main Causes Of Boat Fires?

Red and white boat caught on a fire.

I’ve been a certified National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) inspector for more than a decade. During this time, I’ve investigated hundreds of boat fires. I’m also an avid boater and own a mid-sized speed boat. Fires are common. Luckily, most aren’t as severe as you may think. In 2020, the Coast Guard reported 316 fires with casualties nationwide. Here’s all you need to know about boat fires.

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The 7 Most Common Causes of Boat Fires

Boat fires are unfortunate, and most are preventable. Here are the most common ones that I’ve seen:

1. Electrical Problems

Electrical wiring of a boat engine.

Electrical problems are the number one cause of boat fires. This is because boats have a lot of electrical equipment on board, and it’s not always properly maintained. When electrical wires become frayed or damaged, they can start a fire. Also, if a boat’s battery is not secured correctly, it can start a fire.

2. Fuel Leaks

Oil leaks on a big pipe.

Fuel leaks are another common origin of boat fires. Gasoline and diesel fuel are highly flammable, so even a tiny leak can be dangerous. If you smell gas or diesel fuel on your boat, investigate it immediately. When there’s no explanation, contact a professional to check for leaks.

3. Smoking

Adult man smoking cigarette.

Smoking is one of the most common reasons for boat fires. Cigarettes, cigars, and pipes can quickly start a fire if they’re not properly extinguished. If you smoke on your boat, use an ashtray and never throw cigarettes overboard. It may not cause a fire, but it’s not healthy for the water.

4. Ignition of Flammable Materials

Flammable hazard sign.

The ignition of flammable materials causes many boat fires. This can include rags soaked in gasoline, cleaning fluids, or paint thinners. These can easily cause a fire when they’re left in a closed space, such as an engine compartment.

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5. Space Heaters

Space heaters are another common source of boat fires. Never use a space heater on a boat unless it’s specifically designed for marine use. These heaters can overheat and start a fire.

6. Poor Maintenance

Man checking his boat engine for good running conditions.

Keeping good care of your boat can help prevent fires. This includes regularly checking the engine and electrical system and making sure there are no fuel leaks. Other tasks I complete periodically, such as making sure the bilge is clean and dry and that I properly store flammable materials, can reduce the chances of a fire.

7. Cooking

Cooking barbecue on the boat in a boat.

Cooking is an everyday activity on boats, but it’s also a common cause of fires. Never leave cooking food unattended, and keep a fire extinguisher nearby in an emergency.

These are the most common, but not the only, causes of boat fires. If you have any concerns about fire safety on your boat, please contact a professional.

What to Do if Your Boat Catches Fire

Cargo ship caught fire on the sea.

A few years back, I was on a boat that caught fire. It was a frightening experience, but we were able to get the fire under control, and everyone on board escaped without injury. If your boat catches fire, here are some tips:

1. Don’t fight the fire yourself if it’s large or out of control. Get everyone off the boat and call the fire department. If you’re on the open water, radio for help.

Always have enough life jackets for everyone on board, and ensure you know how to use them. Life jackets can literally save your life when a fire breaks out, and you need to abandon your boat in the middle of the ocean or a lake.

2. If the fire is small and you can fight it yourself, use a fire extinguisher. Class A fires caused by combustible materials, such as wood or paper are best extinguished with a dry chemical extinguisher. Class B fires caused by flammable liquids such as gasoline are best extinguished with a CO2 extinguisher.

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3. Never use water to extinguish a boat fire. Water can spread the fire and make it worse. Instead, use a fire extinguisher or try to smother the fire with a blanket or jacket if you don’t have one.

4. Be sure to have your boat’s registration and insurance information handy if the fire department needs it.

5. If you’re on a lake or river, be aware of the wind direction. If the wind is blowing towards the shore, point the boat’s bow towards the coast so that the fire doesn’t spread to the rest of the vessel.

6. Once the fire is out, have your boat inspected by a qualified marine surveyor before you use it again. There may be damage that’s not immediately apparent, and you don’t want to risk another fire or capsizing.

No one wants to experience a boat fire. Consider having a safety plan ready in case the worst happens. Knowing what to do can help you stay calm and take action quickly if a fire breaks out on your vessel.

I have a plan and practice with my family so that we know what to do if the boat catches fire. Do you?

Practicing with your family is the best way to be prepared for a fire on your boat. Ensure everyone knows where the fire extinguishers are and how to use them. Designate someone to call the fire department, and have a plan for getting everyone off the boat safely. Finally, practice your plan so that you can all react quickly and calmly if a fire occurs.

Don’t Skip a Comprehensive Boat Insurance Policy

Boat fires are one of the many perils covered by comprehensive boat insurance. This policy will protect you financially if a fire damages or destroys your boat and other causes, such as theft, storm damage, and collision. Don’t skip this critical coverage—get a quote today.

How to Prevent Boat Fires

Wooden boat on fire on the sea.

The best way to deal with a boat fire is to prevent it from happening. Here are some tips:

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1. Inspect your boat regularly, and don’t use it if you see any signs of trouble. Check the engine compartment for leaks and make sure all electrical wiring is good. If you’re not confident in your ability to do this, take your boat to a qualified mechanic or marina for inspection.

2. Store flammable liquids, such as gasoline and cleaning fluids, in safe containers away from heat sources. Never store them below deck.

3. Don’t smoke on your boat, and if you do, use an ashtray and never throw cigarettes overboard.

4. Use space heaters only if they’re designed for marine use. These heaters can overheat and start a fire.

5. Take Your boat for service regularly. I use mine often and take it at the beginning and end of the season. That way, I can catch any potential problems before they cause a fire.

6. Keep a fire extinguisher on board, and know how to use it. Review the instructions regularly to be able to use them if a fire breaks out.

7. Be extra careful when cooking on your boat. Don’t leave food unattended, and keep flammable items such as towels and curtains away from the stove. Never use a grill on deck unless it’s designed for marine use.

8. Never leave candles burning unattended. Avoid using candles on a boat. Instead, try flameless candles or other lighting sources.

9. Don’t overload your boat’s electrical system. If you’re using a lot of electronics, such as a fish finder, GPS, and radio, be sure to turn some off so that you don’t exceed the maximum wattage.

10. Check your boat’s engine regularly, and don’t use it if it’s leaking oil or coolant. These fluids can catch fire, and a leaking engine can overheat and start a fire.

Boat fires are relatively uncommon, but they can be very dangerous. By following the tips above, you can help prevent a fire on your boat, and if one breaks out, you’ll be better prepared to deal with it.