It’s a Hoot was safe – the firefighters’ bootprints on the boat’s slip deck showed how close the flames came. But next door, Purple Rain, the one with the purple mood lights, was a total loss, burned to a smoking heap. Sweet Dreams and Second Chance were gone, too.
Houseboat owners at the Walnut Grove Marina on Monday afternoon took in the damage done after flames destroyed more than a dozen watercraft just after midnight. They call each other “Delta Rats,” the community of houseboaters here on Snodgrass Slough for whom the water is a second home and playground.
“Everybody knows everybody out here – it’s a community,” said Ed Weldey of Santa Rosa, who has berthed at Walnut Grove the past 15 years. “I heard about it on the news and called everybody I knew.”
Although an estimated 14 boats burned, no one was reported hurt and the destruction could have been much worse if one flaming watercraft had continued to drift toward a fueling station.
“I can’t believe the destruction of those houseboats,” said Don Russo, who also berths at the marina in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta community about 30 miles south of Sacramento. “There’s absolutely nothing left.”
Nearly all the boats were reduced to twisted metal and piles of ash. A large section of metal roof that had collapsed from its supports dangled in the water.
Many of the boat owners live out of town and didn’t know anything was wrong until they saw televised images of flames devouring their boats or got phone calls from friends.
“The worst part was seeing it on the news,” said Sherry Anders of Vacaville, owner of It’s a Hoot, looking out at the wreckage along the marina’s dock just feet away from her houseboat. Just starboard in the slough was another boat, its interior blackened by flames.
Her family was aboard It’s a Hoot just hours earlier on Sunday afternoon. “We knew it was our shed. We could see our boat. We’re very lucky.”
Many others were still making their way to Walnut Grove on Monday afternoon to assess the damage.
Pat McKinzey of Elk Grove got word from a friend hours after the first calls to firefighters. Purple Rain’s his boat, and the news wasn’t good.
“I got a call at 4 o’clock this morning that boats were on fire,” he said, holding his toddler daughter Riley and looking down at the docks and his gutted boat. “I first thought it was my buddies’ at the end. Ends up that it was mine and a bunch of others. I think mine was the last one to burn on that dock.”
Flames licked up through the covered slips, with some collapsing under the intense heat. Propane tanks exploded, and heavy winds blew the smoke.
Walnut Grove Fire District Assistant Chief Mark van Loben Sels said several boats were engulfed when firefighters arrived. The flames brought firefighters from stations around the region: Walnut Grove, Courtland, Thornton and Cosumnes River Fire District.
“This is one of the largest and one of the trickiest fires in recent years because of the separation between land and docks,” van Loben Sels said. “We had one boat where the ropes burned through and it got out of containment. It started floating toward the larger slips and fuel docks.”
Luckily, the current brought the boat close enough that firefighters could grab it with poles and douse it with water.
“It could have been much worse,” van Loben Sels said.
Cosumnes Fire Battalion Chief Paul Zehnder said firefighters snaked hoses down the docks to fight the blaze, at one point drawing water from the slough. “They were able to untie some of the boats and move them out of the way to prevent the fire from continuing to spread,” he said.
Dennis Fay, who sells boats at the marina, was sleeping when he and his wife heard a large bang. They went outside and saw boats two or three slips away fully engulfed in flames.
“It was just red-hot,” he said. “It looked like a forest fire. It was burning like crazy.”
He untied his boat and motored it out into the river to escape the flames. He stayed there, taking pictures of the spreading fire.
The couple called 911 and telephoned an employee at the marina to try to get boats away from the marina. But the fire was burning so intensely they could not get close. The blaze was stoked by the flammable nature of the boats: fiberglass, propane tanks, fuel, and the belongings and furnishings in the houseboats. Many of the houseboats are only used during the summer and are not occupied during the colder months.
“These big boats are tall, these 65-footers were just a few feet from the top of the roofs,” Fay said. “It was melting everything.”
The Fays live on a houseboat at the marina, 1400 Old Levee Road. About a half dozen other boats are similarly occupied.
A total of about 300 boats were in their slips Sunday night, Fay said.
“Most of them are houseboats, the majority in the 50- to 60-foot range,” he said. “There’s no telling how it started. And I don’t think they will ever find out because the boats were burned to the waterline.”
Fire officials said the cause of the blaze was under investigation.
Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.