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Hot on the Trail

Department's 'fire cops' comb the ashes and debris in search of clues pointing to the work of arsonists.

October 20, 1998|KARIMA A. HAYNES | Times Staff Writer

NORTH HILLS — Two arson investigators cautiously walk through the blackened remains of a house near Roscoe and Sepulveda boulevards.

They ascend a charred staircase to an attic. There, amid the scorched debris, the Los Angeles Fire Department investigators find what they think was the source of the blaze: a charred halogen lamp.

"One of the occupants was up there earlier in the day using the lamp to light concealed spaces," said Investigator David Liske. "We feel they probably brought the lamp into contact with combustible material, such as insulation, which started the fire."

Although the veteran investigators determined the house fire was an accident, that is not always the case.

Liske and Tim Crass are routinely called to fire scenes where extensive damage, explosions, serious injuries or fatalities have occurred, or where suspects or witnesses are present.

Firefighters particularly rue deliberately set fires, Crass said.

"Kids like to set fires . . . because they think it is amusing and they like to see the firetrucks coming," he said. "They don't realize until it is too late how much damage can be done to structures, how many lives can be lost and how many people can be disfigured for life."

For more than a decade, Liske and Crass have picked over smoky rubble and water-saturated structures trying to determine how fires started.

When arson is suspected and they can't find evidence of accelerants, they often call to the scene fellow Arson Investigator Frank Oglesby, who unleashes Flower, a dog specially trained by the Connecticut State Police to sniff out flammable substances.

In addition to firefighter training, investigators undergo advanced peace officer, firearms, and interview and interrogation training.

Because they are authorized to arrest suspects and carry firearms, the city Fire Department's 18 arson investigators are called "fire cops."

"We no longer ride a truck. All of our work is in law enforcement," Liske said. "But we are still firefighters first and foremost."

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