SPECTACLE: A boat abandoned nearly 20 years ago behind the Inverness Store has drawn droves of photographers. A fire early Monday morning destroyed the stern, setting off sorrowful panegyrics on social media sites.     Katie Eberle

The long abandoned boat stuck in the mud flats of Tomales Bay, which has lured droves of photographers over the years, lit up in flames in the wee hours of Monday morning. Officials have not identified the cause, but pictures on social media of sparks circling the boat have spurred suspicion and anger online.

The fire was reported at about 1:20 a.m. Monday morning by locals returning from a late-night beach gathering to celebrate the full moon. The fire lined the edges of the stern and flames whipped up from the engine box, turning bright blue as witnesses looked on.

The Inverness Volunteer Fire Department, the Marin County Fire Department and the National Park Service responded, fighting the flames until about 4 a.m. “It pretty well destroyed the stern of the boat,” said Jim Fox, the Inverness fire chief.

In its current state, the boat will probably need to be removed entirely. “It is much more of a hazard now and there is more debris,” Chief Fox went on. “It should probably be taken out.”

The boat sits on bottomlands belonging to the Point Reyes National Seashore. John Dell’Osso, a park spokesman, said the cause of the fire is “still under investigation.”

But a photo circulating on Facebook has sparked outrage: the picture, apparently taken Saturday evening, shows steel wool spinners spewing lights around the boat.

Steel wool spinning typically involves tethering a steel cable to a kitchen whisk that is filled with steel wool and ignited. Then someone grabs the opposite end and whirls it around, creating a DIY firework. 

The picture, posted to Instagram by an amateur photographer who goes by the handle imonlyjames, said he did not orchestrate the show but instead happened upon it and took the picture. “My common sense and recollection of the accounts leads me to believe that the folks involved were by all accounts careful and thoughtful in their process,” he wrote on the photo sharing site.

The fire did not ignite for another day and one person posted a picture on social media from Sunday afternoon, with no evidence of smoke. But it is possible that hidden embers did not catch until later.

Another photo from about a week and a half ago—also of steel wool spinning by the boat—surfaced online this week on The West Marin Feed. Someone who goes by the handle Mark.Hernandez_ posted it to Instagram. “Creativity is key. 2am mission to this beauty,” he wrote under the picture. He tagged another person who goes by the handle @dave_89till, whose Instagram page says his name is David Hernandez, as the “spinner.”

Burton Eubank, one of the firefighters on the scene that night, said he has read the online discussion. “But we just don’t know. If you don’t see a guy lighting a match…it’s all conjecture,” he said.

Twenty-five-year-old Hana Yoshimoto, who grew up in Inverness, is mourning the loss of a hallmark of her childhood. “It’s been there my whole life,” she said, adding that as a kid, she and her friends scaled the vessel. “It was our jungle gym. We let our imaginations run wild.” As she grew older, the boat became more of a contemplative site.

And while many others are also saddened by the fire, some say they saw the boat as a cliché and were annoyed by the parade of photographers that came to document it.

Ms. Yoshimoto remarked that the popularity of the boat “seems to be another reflection of Point Reyes becoming a tourist destination… It makes me sad to see it become that for some people: a cool photo opportunity.”

The boat, called the Point Reyes, was built in 1944, according to Rebecca Dixon of Dixon Marine Services, whose headquarters sit beside the washed-up vessel. She said it was a World War II launch boat that brought soldiers from aircraft carriers in the Bay Area to port. It was then used for salmon fishing for many years. 

On Facebook, Sheila Rocca-Moore said it has long belonged to her father, Merrell Rocca.

The boat was eventually left in Marshall. According to Inverness resident Lee Richardson, a local man decided to rehabilitate it, but when he took it crabbing the boat filled with water and he decided his fishing career was done. 

According to Mr. Richardson, the man brought it to Inverness to “cut it up into pieces and take it to the dump.” But when it got stuck in the mudflats, he left it there, and every year since then it has become more and more embedded in the sand bank. 

Ms. Dixon said it was not there when her business took up shop in Inverness in 1995. She believes it ended up there in ‘97.

“It’s part of the ‘Old Inverness,’” she said.

Mr. Richardson added, “It’s probably one of the most photographed things in the state of California! I’m sad to see it go. It didn’t hurt anyone.”

Since the fire, the boat has continued to see visitors paying their last respects.

On Tuesday afternoon, Nam Ing, a Penngrove man who has taken innumerable pictures of the boat, stood nearby in waders, getting his final shots. “It’s very famous,” he said. “Almost every photographer in the area comes. It’s a landmark for us…Someone told me they will move it away, so I [came to] make sure I get the last picture possible.”

What exactly the weathered boat is depends on your perspective. 

It might be a picturesque icon, a childhood relic, a symbol of the beauty of decay, an online stock image, a beloved landmark, a photographer’s Mecca, a dangerous nuisance, the centerpiece of a pyrotechnic light show, a meaningless assemblage of rotten wood, a vessel for imaginative flights of fancy, a disturbing microcosm of an agricultural region whose identity has been increasingly subsumed by the tourist economy, a part of West Marin history or just a boat in the wrong place.