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Fire boats to help battle Lake Norman blazes

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/28/18/32/sI3gr.Em.138.jpeg|316
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
    The Fireboat Simon Aliotta crabwalks up to the dock in Cornelius during a weekly maintenance checkout.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/28/18/32/BrxvD.Em.138.jpeg|126
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
    The Fireboat Simon Aliotta tests its water cannon during a weekly maintenance checkout.

While thousands of boats are covered for the winter on Lake Norman, seven stand at the ready at all times.

They shoot water onto burning lakefront mansions, use sonar to search for drowning victims and have even rescued a critically injured woman outside her home.

They are the seven emergency boats that belong to fire-and-rescue squads in Mecklenburg, Lincoln, Iredell and Catawba counties, which form North Carolina’s largest man-made lake.

Each boat responds to anywhere from a dozen to 20 calls a year, besides attending fireworks displays and other special events, and heading onto the lake on the boater-packed Memorial Day weekend and Fourth of July.

Nine times out of 10, calls turn out to be little or nothing, said Neel Brawley, deputy chief of Lake Norman Fire/Rescue on Brawley School Road near Mooresville.

Then came the call on Dec. 31 to respond to a fire in the nearby Point community.

Flames spread so rapidly in the $3 million waterfront house that it couldn’t be saved, fire officials said. But thousands of gallons of water per minute from the Denver, Lake Norman and Cornelius-Lemley fire boats made conditions safer for land-based firefighters to approach the back of the house, which faced the lake. The columns of water from the boats helped prevent injuries, Brawley said.

The cause remains under investigation, Iredell County Deputy Fire Marshal Thomas Moore said.

A fire that gutted a mansion on exclusive Governor’s Island in eastern Lincoln County on Dec. 25, 2008, helped inspire the Denver Fire Department to get its fire boat, spokesman Dion Burleson said. Governor’s Island has “multiple” hydrants, he said, but water pressure in them was too low to save the home.

‘Absolutely critical’ fleet

“We protect about $1.8 billion in property value,” Fire Chief James Flynn said. “A billion is within 1,000 feet of the shoreline.”

The fire boats “are absolutely critical,” to fighting fires in larger lakefront homes, said Cornelius commissioner Jim Duke, who lives in the Peninsula community off Jetton Road. “They provide the extra water that’s needed.”

“It’s an endless supply, unless Lake Norman goes dry,” Fire Chief Jim Barbee of Cornelius-Lemley Fire & Rescue said during a recent on-the-lake test of equipment on his department’s 33-foot- long fire boat, which is berthed at Peninsula Yacht Club.

Duke, chairman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department Advisory Committee, said water lines in some lakefront developments should be far larger than what the original developers installed, given the size of the homes. The lines are even smaller toward the end of the developments, including his, Duke said.

Having the boats, he said, “is essential.”

From old-school to high-tech

The oldest fire boat on the lake is the Huntersville Fire Department’s 1996 Boston Whaler. It’s on a trailer so it can respond to emergencies on both Lake Norman and Mountain Island Lake, said firefighter and EMT Bill Suthard, the department’s spokesman.

In 2012, the Charlotte Fire Department gave Huntersville’s department a high-definition, side-imaging sonar system capable of viewing down and sideways 180 degrees, “giving us a clear view of the bottom of the lakes,” Suthard said.

“This system was given to us so that we could work in partnership with Charlotte fire during search and recovery incidents on the lakes prior to their dive team arriving.”

Some of the other fire boats on the lake also come equipped with side-imaging sonar. The newest boats on the lake cost $400,000 to $450,000 or more. Some have enough room on deck to handle multiple victims. They have diving platforms for searches, rescues and recoveries.

Sherrills Ford-Terrell Fire & Rescue’s boat has the only emergency dive team in Catawba County, which has 117 miles of shoreline, Sherrills Ford-Terrell Capt. Houston Garris said.

More than fire service

The boats multitask, responding not only to house fires and drownings but to boat and personal watercraft wrecks, boat fires and anyone with a medical emergency. The other departments with boats are Shepherds Fire-Rescue in Iredell County, which has a fire boat, and Mooresville Fire-Rescue, whose boat aids in searches, rescues and recoveries.

The boats “are not just for the homes and homeowners but anyone who uses Lake Norman,” Brawley said. “It doesn’t matter what county they’re in. A boat will get to them quickly.”

Rosemary Drury, 67, credits her rescuers from Denver’s boat with keeping her from being paralyzed when they tended to her on Sept. 4, 2012.

She tripped on the patio of her Governor’s Island home, fell and rolled onto nearby rocks lining the shore, she said. She broke her neck, her husband, Bob, recalled this week. She also required 115 stitches.

Rosemary Drury said her doctor told her she recovered so well because of the careful way the emergency responders handled her.

On July 31, 2013, one of her neighbors surprised her with a party attended by her rescuers, she said.

“I told them at the party, ‘You’re just like ‘Chicago Fire,’ ” she said, referring to the NBC TV drama.

“No,” she said one of them replied, “this was the real thing.”

Marusak: 704-358-5067; Twitter: @jmarusak
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