The fire which has been raging on the Navy’s amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego Naval Base is so extensive that it is visible in satellite imagery. The fire, which broke out just after 9am local time on July 12, has put over 20 sailors and civilians in hospital. Details are still emerging about the fire and it is an ongoing situation. But yesterday the Sentinel 2 satellite passed overhead on a routine pass and inadvertently captured the plume of black smoke rising high over San Diego. For some this may bring the seriousness of the fire into perspective.
Fires aboard warships are a constant threat for every navy. On April 11 a fire broke out aboard the Chinese Navy’s latest assault carrier, the Type-075. The ship is China’s equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s Wasp Class assault carriers like the USS Bonhomme Richard. That fire, while evidently serious, was quickly put out.
And a month ago I wrote a piece on the French Navy’s catastrophic fire aboard a nuclear submarine. The Perle was gutted on June 12, exactly a month before the San Diego fire. At the time I said that “You will not find many in the defense community laughing at France’s expense. When a Russian or Chinese warship suffers a similar accident, many casual observers are quick to make jokes. Less so the defense community.” This latest fire aboard a U.S. Navy ship is a powerful reminder of this.
The cause of this fire has not yet been established. But there can be a multitude of factors. Much of the repair work aboard a ship is ‘hot work’. This means that it requires the use of electric arc or gas welding equipment, cutting burner equipment or other forms of naked flame. There are also heat, and sometimes sparks, caused by tools regardless of where it is carried out on board a ship.
Add to ‘hot work’ the multitude of flammable liquids and gasses, and sometimes ammunition, and there are many things which can cause a fire or explosion. In this case there was apparently an explosion followed by a fire. But at this point we should be cautious to speculate about the cause.
The USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) is an amphibious warfare ship designed to land troops and tanks on enemy shores. In U.S. Navy terminology it is an Amphibious Assault Ship, or more technically a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD). She displaces over 40,000 tons and can an impressive array of heavy lift helicopters and fighter jets. She has been upgraded to carry the stealthy F-35B Lightning II strike-fighters. These are replacing the famous AV-8B Harrier-II jump jet. Only a fraction of her crew and were apparently on board and the time and she was not fully loaded with aircraft, troops or other equipment. But there is plenty that could start the fire, and fuel it.
It will take time to see how seriously the fire will affect the U.S. Navy’s operational plans. For the moment the focus will be on making the situation safe and assessing the damage. Can she be returned to service? Time will tell.