Fire investigators determined the blaze that broke out on the whale-watching tour boat Condor Express was accidental and that it started at the battery charging station for the boat’s portable maritime radio. The fire occurred two days after owner Fred Benko — a pioneer in Santa Barbara’s whale-watching industry — died.

Damage was confined to the wheelhouse cabin and wiped out much of the boat’s electronic infrastructure. But according to Benko’s widow, Hiroko, the damage was not nearly as bad as the flames suggested. Hiroko said she expects the boat to be operational again within two months and that she will be leasing a new boat for whale-watching excursions in the interim.

The fire broke out shortly after the crew, just back from a whale-watching trip, left. First at the scene was an off-duty firefighter from San Francisco. Hiroko credited his early intervention with limiting the damage. The Condor Express, she said, was built 10 years ago, designed in New Zealand to be tough enough to handle the rugged choppy waters of the Santa Barbara Channel but zippy enough to be able to chase after whales and other marine life.


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