Fremantle Highway Fire
Photo: Dutch coastguard

Carrying cars on containerships rather than pure car and truck carriers is unlikely to reduce the risk of ship fires, according to industry experts.

Authorities on the scene of this week’s tragic Fremantle Highway fire yesterday, keen to avoid a repeat of last year’s Felicity Ace sinking, attempted to embark salvage teams on the car carrier, but the vessel was still too hot to access.

A further attempt is expected today.

Still burning after almost four days, the blaze, which resulted in the death of one seafarer and injury to 22 others, is one of many recent examples of car carrier fires in which electric car batteries have played a major part.

But despite the safety of car carrier designs being called into question, there is little hope that the recent trend of carrying electric vehicles (EVs) in containers on box ships will alleviate the problem, according to Loadstar sources.

“It is another solution… we have not had any issues – and hopefully we will not,” said one automotive forwarder. “But it won’t stop a fire if it breaks out – that is down to the technical situation of the batteries. But it may stop the spread [of a fire].”

Hans-Henrik Nielsen, global development director at CargoGulf, told The Loadstar cars-in-containers would be “less safe …due to the cellular stacking of the containers on board vessels”. He explained: “So if one container goes off (especially under deck) it will be very difficult to reach to put out a fire.”

The 2018 fire on Maersk Honam originated inside a container of bleach in the vessel’s no 3 cargo hold, low down in the stack. The blaze had all the fuel it needed tightly packed in one place, with no ventilation to prevent heat spreading to the surrounding containers. By the time crew were aware of the fire, it had already overwhelmed the ship’s firefighting systems and resulted in five deaths and the loss of the ship.

Palle Laursen, Maersk chief technical officer at the time, said: “Most container operators refuse to carry lithium. It is too volatile, and you don’t even get a premium freight rate to take that risk, so why do it? Feeder operators like Xpress Feeders  are hysterical about this after [the Xpress Pearl] burned down.”

“There is generally a lack of fire detection capability in a container,” warned Peregrine Storrs-Fox, TT Club risk management director.

However, the gradual propagation of improving container technology, including smart containers which can measure internal temperatures, may make it possible to detect fires sooner.

“You can have thermal imaging, or some kind of fire suppression capability in a container. There are developing ideas as to how you might be able to detect an EV fire,” added Mr Storrs-Fox.

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