Cargo fires onboard vessels a burning issue

During the past year, fires on board the roll-on roll-off (ro-ro) car carrier Felicity Ace and the container ship X-Press Pearl both resulted in total losses. Cargo fires are indeed a priority concern, according to marine insurer Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty SE’s (AGCS) Safety & Shipping Review 2022.

There have been over 70 reported fires on container ships alone in the past five years, the report notes. Fires often start in containers, which can be the result of non-/mis-declaration of hazardous cargo, such as chemicals and batteries – around 5% of containers shipped may consist of undeclared dangerous goods. 

Fires on large vessels can spread quickly and be difficult to control, often resulting in the crew abandoning ship, which can significantly increase the final cost of an incident.

Fires have also become a major loss driver for car carriers. Among other causes, they can start in cargo holds, caused by malfunctions or electrical short circuits in vehicles, while the open decks can allow them to spread quickly. 

The growing numbers of electric vehicles (EVs) transported by sea brings further challenges, given existing counter-measure systems may not respond effectively in the event of an EV blaze. Losses can be expensive, given the value of the car cargo and the cost of wreck removal and pollution mitigation.

When large vessels get into trouble, emergency response and finding a port of refuge can be challenging. Specialist salvage equipment, tugs, cranes, barges and port infrastructure are required, which adds time and cost to a response. 

The X-Press Pearl, which sank after it was refused refuge by two ports following a fire – the ports were unable or unwilling to discharge a leaking cargo of nitric acid – is one of several incidents where container ships have had difficulty finding a safe haven. 

Meanwhile, the salvage operation for the car carrier Golden Ray, which capsized in the US in 2019, took almost two years and cost in excess of $800 million.

“Too often, what should be a manageable incident on a large vessel can end in a total loss. Salvage is a growing concern. Environmental concerns are contributing to rising salvage and wreck removal costs as ship owners and insurers are expected to go the extra mile to protect the environment and local economies,” says Captain Rahul Khanna, Global Head of Marine Risk Consulting at AGCS. 

“Previously, a wreck might have been left in-situ if it posed no danger to navigation. Now, authorities want wrecks removed and the marine environment restored, irrespective of cost.”

Higher salvage costs, along with the burden of larger losses more generally, are a cost increasingly borne by cargo owners and their insurers. 

“’General average’, the legal process by which cargo owners proportionately share losses and the cost of saving a maritime venture, has become a frequency event, as well as a severity event, with the increase in the number of large ships involved in fires, groundings and container losses at sea compared with five years ago,” explains Régis Broudin, Global Head of Marine Claims at AGCS. 

Photo credit: iStock/ BogdanV

Editor

Editor

A team of dedicated journalists whose mission is to advocate for ethics and transparency in the maritime industry.

The best maritime news and insights delivered to you.

Here's what you can expect from us:

  • News & key insights covering the maritime industry
  • Expert analysis and opinions on maritime corruption and more
  • Exclusive interviews