12/21/2011 09:42 EST | Updated 02/20/2012 05:12 EST

Man narrowly escapes $40M marina fire

A man in Port Lambton, Ont., narrowly escaped an explosion that ripped through a marina minutes after he raced from it to report a fire that caused $40 million in damages and destroyed 75 boats and antique cars.

St. Clair Township's fire chief, Roy Dewhirst, said an employee at St. Clair Boating and Marina on Old River Road discovered a fire in one of the boats stacked along the roofline of the massive winter storage facility.

Not long after he left to call 911, there was an explosion that ripped the end off the 91-metre-long steel shed, Dewhirst said.

The employee didn't try to extinguish the fire because the flames were out of his reach.

"It was up in a boat that was probably 30 feet [about nine metres] in the air, so it was much, much over his head," Dewhirst said.

Dewhirst said a fuel tank caught fire and exploded.

"It was a good thing that he did go call [911] because it wasn't a good spot for him," Dewhirst.

It took approximately 55 firefighters 17 hours to contain the fire that started at 7 a.m. No one was injured.

Two fire departments from Michigan also aided in the battle by sending one truck each.

Cause of fire unknown

Jeff Friedland, director of emergency management for St.Clair County, Mich., said there are close ties between the two communities separated by only the St. Clair River.

"One of our county commissioners had a friend that stores their boat over there. You know it's only 300 yards across the river or less," Friedland said. "And as I say, we look at this as one community. You boat back and forth. You shop back and forth, and things like that."

Dewhirst said the cause is still unknown. An investigator from Ontario's Office of the Fire Marshal is to pick through the ruins Wednesday, looking for a cause.

Firefighters have constructed dams to keep waste water and toxins from the burned fibreglass boats from running into the St. Clair River.

The Ministry of the Environment is also keeping an eye on the site.

The facility housed as many as 75 boats, and a handful of antique and collectible cars.

"A lot of those are fairly high-dollar boats, into the six and some of them are into the seven figures, so it doesn't take a lot to add it up," Dewhirst said. "So we're going to be very, very significant. We're going to be in the tens of millions of dollars."