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Getting to the Root of Wildfires

Federal program helps veteran investigators, firefighters and rangers hone sleuthing skills.

June 27, 2004|Michelle Rushlo | Associated Press Writer

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — On hands and knees, with noses nearly touching the ground, six students are hard hat to hard hat, intently peering at a small charred tract of land.

They're not sure what they're looking for, but it must be here somewhere. Amid the charred pine needles and blackened forest debris is the cause of this still-smoldering fire -- if only they could find it.

What the students attending the federal wildfire investigation course don't yet realize is that one of them stepped on the evidence while trying to understand the burn patterns on nearby brush. Only a single staple from the blackened matchbook was left.

It was a beginner's mistake, but also an indication of how fragile an investigation can be.

Every year, thousands of wildfires burn public lands. As the drought in the West gives rise to more destructive fires, the demand for trained fire gumshoes and thorough investigations has increased.

"We need to equip all our people with all the resources they need so that every fire gets a good investigation," said Mike Heath, a senior instructor for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, which sponsored the five-day training in Prescott. "When it gets busy, it's hard to give every fire the attention needed."

The training center, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, trains about 250 to 300 fire investigators a year in eight to 10 training sessions across the country.

The agency has offered the training for years, but interest has picked up in the last several years, Heath said. Terrorism fears have brought more students from agencies like the FBI, while large fires in the West have spurred attention from public lands workers.

Some students are seasoned investigators looking to brush up on their skills. Others are rangers or firefighters who could be among the first to arrive at a blaze.

Training them can help ensure that the site of the fire's start is preserved for later investigation, said Mike Reamer, a patrol captain for the Prescott and Kaibab national forests.

"A lot of the investigations fall back on the guys on the ground," he said.

Most times, the firefighters first responding to a wildfire are preoccupied with finding a safe place to battle the flames, said John "Pancho" Smith, a Forest Service agent who handles investigations on larger fires in Arizona.

"Usually what happens is the first fire engine on the scene will be parked on the point of origin," he said, only half-joking.

Finding the origin and source of a fire are crucial in determining who started the blaze and whether it was intentional.

The penalty for starting a fire can range from a $100 fine to the cost of fighting a wildfire, which can be in the millions of dollars. If there's criminal intent, an arsonist can get prison time.

Although finding the source of some fires can be more difficult than others, Heath said, investigators like to believe that there is always something left to indicate how a wildfire started, even amid thousands of acres of burned land.

The evidence can be tiny round pellets, smaller than BBs, from a catalytic converter; blackened jagged metal fragments, the remnants of welding, or slender straight metal rods, left over from sparklers.

Instructors "teach them to look for something that doesn't belong," Heath said.

That's part of the point of the class, which includes burn patterns, witness interviews, even writing reports.

Wild-land fires burn in fairly predictable patterns. They generally move in a V-shape away from the source of the fire, helping investigators narrow the initial site. Evidence of the fire's origin often remains because wild-land fires gain intensity as they move away from the source, meaning that some of the least damaged areas can be near the start, Reamer said.

House fires, in contrast, usually have the most intense damage near the start because of the confined space.

Still, looking for the cause of a wildfire requires patience.

After investigators read the burn patterns to narrow the origin site, they'll carefully comb the 10-by-10-foot area, sometimes using a magnifying glass and magnets.

"This takes a lot of practice. It's more of an art than a science," Reamer said.

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