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Fire on Coast Guard icebreaker Healy ends Arctic scientific mission

The icebreaker USCGC Healy, pictured in 2019 during Arctic Ocean training exercises, suffered a fire disabling one engine and cancelling a scientific mission, the Coast Guard reported. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard
The icebreaker USCGC Healy, pictured in 2019 during Arctic Ocean training exercises, suffered a fire disabling one engine and cancelling a scientific mission, the Coast Guard reported. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Aug. 26 (UPI) -- The icebreaker USCGC Healy had an engine room electrical fire last week while off the coast of Alaska and headed to Seattle, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

There were no injuries aboard the 21 year-old ship, but its diesel-powered starboard propulsion motor and shaft were damaged.

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The cause of the fire is currently unknown, but a Coast Guard report on Tuesday said the incident occurred on Aug. 18, and the fire was extinguished after the burning motor was disconnected from the drivetrain.

One of two operational Coast Guard icebreaking cutters, the Healy completed a 26-day patrol of the Bering Strait, which separates Russia from Alaska, days before the incident occurred. On Aug. 15, the ship embarked 11 scientists at Seward, Alaska, to conduct since-cancelled Arctic Ocean science operations.

After the fire, the 42 foot-long Healy returned to Seattle, its home port, for inspection and repairs, the Coast Guard said.

"I commend the crew of the Healy for their quick actions to safely combat the fire," said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, USCG Pacific Area commander.

The Healy is the only Coast Guard icebreaker dedicated to Arctic research, with 4,200 square feet of available for laboratory space, oceanographic winches and accommodations for up to 50 scientists.

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The Coast Guard's other ship with icebreaking capability, the 44 year-old USCGC Polar Star, had a fire in 2019 as it traveled to Antarctica.

"This casualty," Fagan added in reference to the Healy fire, "means that the United States is limited in icebreaking capability until the Healy can be repaired and it highlights the nation's critical need for Polar Security Cutters."

The incident comes as the Coast Guard considers adding armed, nuclear-powered icebreakers to its aging fleet. A White House memorandum in June on polar security called for "a ready, capable and available fleet of polar security icebreakers that is operationally tested and fully deployable by Fiscal Year 2029."

Russia currently operates four nuclear-powered icebreakers -- one, the Taymyr, built in 1987, suffers frequent radiation leaks-- and is expected to build five more, in addition to numerous conventionally-powered ice-capable ships. China is constructing one nuclear-powered icebreaker as well.

The Navy awarded a $746 million contract to VT Halter Marine, a Pascagoula, Miss., shipbuilder, in 2019 for a new heavy polar icebreaker, called a Polar Security Cutter. The cutter is expected to be delivered by 2024, with an option for two more to be built.

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