Flames are visible within the thick, black smoke as the storage shed is consumed by fire.

By Donald Wittkowski

An equipment malfunction was the cause of a raging fire Sunday in Sea Isle City that destroyed a large storage shed for a commercial fishing operation and also severely damaged a lobster boat, authorities said.

Carmen Neil Conti, the owner of the commercial fishing operation, said he is not certain what may have ignited the fire but suspects it was a compressor for a refrigeration unit in the storage shed.

A statement released by the Sea Isle Police Department on Tuesday said a preliminary investigation has revealed the cause of the fire to be accidental “due to an equipment malfunction.”

Sea Isle spokeswoman Katherine Custer said it is not yet clear exactly which type of equipment sparked the blaze. Authorities, though, concluded that the fire started in the storage shed, she said.

The fire broke out shortly after 12:15 p.m. on 43rd Place along Sea Isle’s bayfront and burned down the storage shed for Conti’s commercial fishing operation, called Carmen’s Lobster Pool Inc.

Flames spread from the shed to a fuel tank and then scorched one of Conti’s commercial fishing boats in the water, according to authorities. Conti said the 42-foot boat was badly damaged and likely will have to be scrapped.

The vinyl siding of an adjacent home on 43rd Place was damaged by the fire’s intense heat. Firefighters evacuated neighboring homes until it was safe for residents to return.

Conti said his neighboring bait and tackle shop, called Two Chums, was not damaged and is open for business as usual.

“Two Chums is running 100 percent,” he said in an interview Tuesday night.

The fire sent clouds of thick, black smoke billowing over Sea Isle. Hundreds of bystanders gathered on a boardwalk at the Sea Isle municipal marina on 42nd Place to watch the fire across the lagoon.

In its statement Tuesday, the police department said that within four to six minutes of getting the call, a Sea Isle fire truck arrived at the scene and began pouring water on the flames two minutes later.

Sea Isle officials praised the quick response of the city’s volunteer fire department, as well as the firefighters from neighboring towns who helped battle the blaze.

“I thought it was outstanding, from all accounts,” City Business Administrator George Savastano said of the efforts of firefighters.

Firefighters inspect the charred rubble for hotspots.

Sunday’s blaze was the fifth major fire Sea Isle has had in the past 18 months. All were considered accidental. In the four previous fires, a total of nine single-family homes or duplexes were destroyed. An elderly woman died in one fire on 54th Street last November.

Local residents have been appearing at City Council meetings recently to urge the governing body to establish a professional fire department for Sea Isle instead of continuing to rely exclusively on volunteer firefighters.

Some of the residents have also asked city officials to consider stricter building codes, including requiring fire-retardant construction materials and better fire walls.

Others said homes are too densely packed together in Sea Isle, allowing fires to easily spread from one house to another. They wondered whether the city’s zoning laws should be changed to require more space between homes.

During three of the fires within the past 18 months, wind-whipped flames spread from one house and destroyed one or two adjacent homes.

Members of City Council and Mayor Leonard Desiderio’s administration have assured residents that they will consider a series of measures to improve fire safety, although they indicated they believe the volunteer fire department provides enough protection.