Two Fireboats Save the Waterfront

San Francisco is a city surrounded on three sides by water and on two sides by major earthquake faults. The City has two fireboats, the Phoenix and the Guardian.

By Wes Starratt, PE
Published: April, 2006

San Francisco is a city surrounded on three sides by water and on two sides by major earthquake faults. The City has two fireboats, the Phoenix and the Guardian. They are docked at Firehouse No. 35 at Pier 22½, which is located directly under the Bay Bridge. Between earthquakes, these fire engines of the Bay have extinguished countless waterfront fires and performed rescue operations.

Capt. Dennis Kennedy of the San Francisco Fire Department is not only an engineer for the fireboats, but also, a fireboat history buff. He says that in 1906, there were two state-owned and city-operated steam fireboats at Hose Co. #9 at the Broadway wharf: the steam-driven Governor Irwin and the Governor Markham. Both were 86 feet long, with 1,200 feet of hose and a pumping capacity of only 65,000 gallons per hour, which translates into just a little over 1,000 gallons per minute.

During the 1906 fire, the two were joined by tugs and fireboats from Mare Island Navy Shipyard and two U.S. Army fireboats. Together, they fought a valiant battle against the fires that erupted following the earthquake and were instrumental in saving many parts of the City, especially areas lacking water due to broken water mains.

At the time, the Fire Department’s Chief Engineer, Patrick Shaughnessy, reported that in some areas, Not a drop of water was to be had from the hydrants, and the engines were forced to pump from the sewers, and, had we possessed an adequate water supply, I am positive our Department would have had every fire under control before night.

But water was not plentiful, and at the waterfront all the fireboats were busily striving to check the incipient blazes that threatened to destroy valuable shipping and wharfage property.

Few details are available on the role played by fireboats in fighting the 1906 fires, other than a very dramatic and detailed report by Lt. Frederick Freeman of the U.S. Navy, found in the National Archives.

Summing up the work done by the Mare Island fire tugs, Freeman said, I particularly lay claim to the work done in saving the waterfront from Howard Street to Telegraph Hill, and the stopping of the fire abreast Lombard Street wharf, thereby preventing the fire from sweeping the waterfront.

The waterfront certainly was a vital transportation and communications link that had to be kept open at all costs.

Ferry Building historian, Nancy Olmsted, wrote that Brigadier Gen. Funston of the Presidio of San Francisco realized that water provided the only dependable means of escape for multitudes of people fleeing down Market Street. The general used the fireboats to spray water on this important cluster of buildings at the foot of Market and Mission, and, by doing so, could rescue fleeing citizens and bring in medical supplies and dynamite.

High-Pressure System

San Francisco has been called the city that knows how, and that was certainly the case in 1906.

Capt. Kennedy says, Out of the desperate experience of a lack of water to fight the 1906 fires, the city fathers floated a bond issue in 1908 for a high-pressure water system and two new fireboats, the David Scannell and the Dennis T. Sullivan, which were commissioned in 1909.

The high-pressure water system can be connected to the fireboats at five strategic locations on the waterfront, from Ft. Mason to Islais Creek, with one connection at Firehouse #35. The San Francisco Fire Department uses the high-pressure water system today, although upgraded and expanded.

Lone Phoenix

The SFPD opted for a new fireboat in 1954, the Phoenix, built in Alameda, later rebuilt and fitted with a new firefighting tower. The boat has a length of 89 feet and a speed of 15 knots. She has five engines, pumps 6,400 gallons of water per minute, and can connect with the city’s high-pressure water system and portable hydrant system.

Soon after her arrival at Pier 22½, the Phoenix was baptised in a four-alarm blaze that broke out in April 1955 at the Ferry Building, a fire that did an estimated $750,000 in damage and all but destroyed the north end of the building. There followed numerous other fires for the Phoenix, including the 1980 blaze at Pier 70 and the all-night fire at Piers 30-32 in 1984.

Perhaps the greatest achievement was her ability to almost single-handedly put out the fire that broke out in the Marina District following the 1989 Earthquake.

An entire block of apartment buildings burst into flames. There was no water, since the high-pressure water main had broken in the sandy soil of the area. Within a few minutes, the Phoenix had moved into the marina of the St. Francis Yacht Club, and was joined by a hose tender truck with a portable hydrant system and almost a mile of hose, which was connected to the Phoenix’s powerful pumps. Volunteers helped firefighters extend the hose to surround the fire. Within minutes, the Phoenix was pumping water and extinguishing the fire before it could spread any further.

The Phoenix was praised for saving the Marina from a devastating fire that could have wiped out the area. But what if more fires had broken out in the 1989 Earthquake? There was no other large fireboat to come to the rescue. The Phoenix was the only one.

The Guardian

The Guardian, built in Victoria, BC, in 1951, was retired by the City of Vancouver in 1987. The 88-foot, modernized vessel pumps 20,000 gallons of water per minute. Capt. Kennedy said, We were given the Guardian after the 1989 Earthquake, thanks to an anonymous donor who came up with $300,000 and to a gift of $50,000 from property owners in the Marina, whose property was saved by the Phoenix.

The Phoenix and the Guardian are now docked side-by-side at Firehouse 35 at Pier 22½, along with Fire Engine #35. Firehouse 35 has a crew of seven at all times—four to operate Fire Engine #35, and three for the boats. In the event of an emergency, all seven would be available to man one fireboat, while an additional crew of seven, residing in the City, or the bar pilots, could be called to operate the second fireboat.

Oakland’s Seawolf

In 1906, the Navy was instrumental in putting out many of the waterfront fires, but all of the Bay Area’s Navy facilities have been closed.

Today, the entire Bay Area, with its vast marine terminals, oil refineries, and shore facilities, has only two full-scale fireboats providing protection from major fires, earthquakes and other emergencies. There are also two small boats in Sausalito and Alameda; and there was one in Oakland.

Shortly after the Phoenix demonstrated her ability to put down a major conflagration, Oakland floated a bond issue and bought the Seawolf, a 60-ft long, aluminum-hulled fireboat. In addition, Oakland’s fire department purchased a portable water supply system with hoses that could be extended from the fireboat all the way up Broadway to City Hall.

For almost 20 years, the Seawolf succeeded in keeping small fires from becoming big ones and performed numerous rescue operations along Oakland’s waterfront, which ranks as the fourth largest container port in the U.S. But, faced with budgetary problems, the city tried to transfer the fireboat to the port, which doesn’t believe that a fireboat is necessary for the port’s maritime operations, according to a port spokesperson.

Now, it appears that the city has decommissioned the boat, but according to Capt. Kennedy, they have hung onto it and are putting money into it. Otherwise they would lose a good boat.

Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco

Read Lt. Frederick Freeman’s detail of the firefighting efforts following the 1906 earthquake.