Monroe County boat storage facility goes up in flames

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

A fire Friday destroyed an enormous building loaded with hundreds of boats stored for the winter in southeast Michigan, sending smoke for miles along Lake Erie.

Crews remained at the Toledo Beach Marina in Monroe County through the afternoon as the blaze continued.

Asked about the number of boats inside, Monroe County emergency management director Mark Hammond said, “Hundreds would be an understatement.”

The 420-slip marina is in LaSalle Township, a few miles south of Monroe and just north of the Ohio border. 

Firefighters battle a large blaze at Toledo Beach Marina in LaSalle, Mi., Friday, December 4, 2020.

A 911 call came in about 6:35 a.m. No serious injuries have yet been reported. 

Crews were fighting the fire with hand-held water lines. Just after noon, Monroe Township Fire Department took over the scene, officials said on the radio dispatch. 

By 12:45 p.m., officials expressed concern about the fire reaching an adjacent building.  

Firefighters put a drone into the sky to see what was happening in the water.

"A large engulfment of fuel," said the drone operator. 

The radio dispatch indicated firefighters applied foam to the affected area of the water.

Dave Fornell, deputy commissioner of the Detroit Fire Department, explained that in a gas spill, the vapors are flammable. Firefighters apply an aqueous film-forming foam to contain the vapors. 

Fire trucks and fire boats carry the foam, Fornell said.

Chuck Hutchins is a 43-year veteran of the Toledo Beach Marina, and works in sales at nearby Reed Yacht Sales.

Firefighters battle a large blaze at Toledo Beach Marina in LaSalle, Mi., Friday, December 4, 2020.

He watched Friday's fire with "crossed fingers" that it would be extinguished soon.

Reed has "a whole fleet of new boats," about 20 of them, in a facility two buildings over from the fire, Hutchins said.

"This is not over in the least," Hutchins said in the 9 a.m. hour. "This could be a lot worse."

As he looked out his window, Hutchins said he saw numerous firefighters at the scene, some from as far as Milan. 

About 10:20 a.m., officials reported a "small explosion" of fire that popped up when firefighters were hitting a hot spot. It was quickly extinguished, officials said.

Twenty minutes later, an official relayed a concern from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the possibility that fuel could spill into the water.

"They're very nervous about that getting into (Lake Erie), and where it will go," the official said.

"We're not going to be leaving any time soon," another official said.

U.S. EPA officials did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Earlier in the firefighting effort, dispatchers had to put out an "all units" call to Monroe County fire departments for additional equipment, such as tankers, to supplement the volunteers. The call went out to Lenawee County as well, according to radio dispatches.

A bystander watches as firefighters battle a large blaze at Toledo Beach Marina in LaSalle, Mi., Friday, December 4, 2020.

Safe Harbor Marinas, owner of the boat facility, said in a statement that no one was injured. 

"Our leadership team is at the property managing the situation," said James Phyfe, chief resource officer of Safe Harbor Marinas, in the statement. "We are working closely with first responders and have initiated an investigation into the cause."

Safe Harbor was acquired by Sun Communities of Southfield in September for $2.1 billion, but operates independently. It manages a network of 40,000 boat owners in 22 states.

The Associated Press contributed.