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Fire investigators rely on chemistry, detective work — and lots of patience

Fire investigators rely on chemistry, detective work — and lots of patience

Determining a fire’s origin and cause is a painstaking process that involves chemistry, detective wo
Fire investigators rely on chemistry, detective work — and lots of patience
Schoharie County Fire Coordinator Matt Brisley, head of the county's fire investigation team, discusses techniques used to investigate a recent fire in the town of Jefferson.

Matt Brisley stood in the middle of a charred shell that was once part of a home in the town of Jefferson.

“There was a woodstove here,” Schoharie County’s fire coordinator and head of its fire investigation team said, pointing to a spot in the ruined room. “We were able to easily eliminate that. [The homeowners] hadn’t burned wood in a couple of weeks.”

He called attention to the blackened beams on the ceiling, noting they were thinnest close to where the fire originated. He also pointed out a portion of the floor that was removed so investigators could inspect the wiring beneath.

“There was a lead cord plugged in here that went down to heat tape, to keep a pipe from freezing. There was a section that we couldn’t find any wire left. [The cause] could have been something to do with that,” he said, motioning to a point in the home’s crawl space.

Determining a fire’s origin and cause is a painstaking process that involves chemistry, detective work and patience. Often, as in the case of the recent Jay Street apartment fire in Schenectady, the process can take weeks.

Fire investigators receive extensive training for their job — 116 hours of classroom instruction and 80 hours of documented field investigation under the supervision of an experienced investigator.

Information gathering often starts while the fire is burning, Brisley said. Investigators speak with the person who discovered the fire, the first arriving firefighters and any other witnesses. Investigators question the building’s owner or occupants to find out what each room looked like before the fire, and once the fire is out, furnishings are returned to their pre-fire positions.

“If we don’t put those things back as close as possible to pre-fire conditions, we could read those [burn] patterns incorrectly and be in a different area than where the fire actually started,” explained Bill McGovern, deputy chief of the investigations unit for the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control.

Reconstructing the layout of multi-floor structures, like the Jay Street apartment buildings that burned March 6, is a challenge when floors have burned away.

“We remove the debris typically in layers in situations like that where there’s multiple stories,” McGovern explained. “Where a normal room fire we could reconstruct right there in the room, we may have to reconstruct a scenario like that out in a secured field or parking lot.”

Apart from still and video cameras, investigators’ tools, for the most part, aren’t high-tech. Brisley said he uses a shovel and a rake, a hand trowel and a whisk broom. At very wet fire scenes, a shovel with holes drilled in it is employed, to allow water to drain.

“As you go through, you look through the debris for certain things like electrical wire, outlets, pieces of melted appliances,” Brisley said. “Eventually you get down to hand tools and whisk brooms as you’re getting down to the floor.”

“Your observation skills and your training and knowledge are the most important tools that an investigator has in their proverbial toolbox,” McGovern noted.

To determine a fire’s origin, investigators consider factors including areas of lowest fire damage, depth of char and the fire’s behavior. Fire is pretty predictable, McGovern said.

“By understanding fire chemistry, we can, in essence, read the damage and patterns at a fire scene to determine where a fire might have started,” he said.

Once the origin is determined, the search for potential causes begins. Possibilities include cleaning solutions, cooking equipment, heating systems, electrical appliances, wiring, candles left burning or even the sun’s rays, magnified in intensity by something like a magnifying glass.

In the case of the Jay Street fire, investigators were able to determine the fire was caused by something left burning — perhaps a cigarette, candle or incense — that ignited an armchair. The fire was determined to be accidental.

Sometimes, a fire is intentionally set. One sign of that is a “trailer ... a classic example of someone pouring gas out the door and lighting it so they can get away,” Brisley explained.

Separate fires occurring simultaneously in a building are also a suspicious occurrence.

Not all of indicators of arson have to be related to the fire, Brisley noted. Jealousy and financial problems experienced by individuals associated with the building can sometimes come into play.

Arson dogs have been used in New York state fire investigations since 1988. Trainer and canine receive just over 300 hours of instruction to learn how to locate the presence of ignitable liquids. McGovern said the animals are more efficient than hydrocarbon gas detectors that can be employed for the same purpose.

Fire investigations can take a few hours or weeks, as the ongoing one on Jay Street has, and a definitive cause is not always determined. People often expect quick, neat outcomes like the ones they see on television, Brisley noted.

“People think it’s like ‘CSI,’ that everything can be figured out in an hour. That’s changed the perception of fire investigators,” he said.

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