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Richard training Investigators from Asian Countries in South Korea.

Wildfire investigation – finding the spark

Accurate identification of the cause of a Wildfire plays a critical behind-the-scenes role when it comes to the presentation of evidence in Criminal, Coronial or Civil proceedings, or to gain an accurate picture of the cause of fires in an area. So how do you find the cause in a blackened landscape that may cover thousands of hectares?

Successfully preventing the unplanned ignition of wildfires is reliant on three key areas;

  • Engineering (or that of appropriate legislation governing the use of fire in the open and adequate penalties, authority to investigate fires etc);
  • Education (of the public and firefighters in wildfire ignition prevention and reporting of suspicious activity relating to the cause of a wildfire) and;
  • Enforcement (pro-active investigation of wildfires and follow-up prosecutions).

Critical to the Enforcement stage is that of wildfire cause investigation and the examination of the fire scene to locate evidence of an ignition source, enabling the item of evidence to be linked to an arsonist, linked to failed equipment, or linked to a negligent act.

The investigation of the cause of Wildfires is a specialist task that is somewhat different to that of structure fire investigation. Even before the smoke clears, the clinical process begins and like any investigation, it requires expertise to accurately interpret what occurred out of the ash and blackened vegetation that remains.

This specialist role has taken on even more significance in recent years as civil litigation cases emerge to consider ‘accidental/negligent’ issues and ignition prevention responsibilities. And importantly, given the community expectation to identify and successfully prosecute arsonists, a significant reliance is on the work of Wildfire Investigators to combine their skills with their Police colleagues to comprehensively represent these cases to Court.

As with all legal proceedings, a successful prosecution relies on, among other factors, the accuracy and reliability of the evidence presented. A complex process that requires a significant level of experience and training to accurately determine the cause- a procedure which can be very challenging.

So, how do you accurately determine the cause of a Wildfire?

By applying an internationally accepted methodology to a scene examination to accurately locate the Origin and link evidence of the Ignition Factor, be it relating to Juvenile activity, a Campfire, Smoking, Debris Burning, Incendiary/Deliberate action, Equipment Use, Railways, Lightning or other Miscellaneous causes (such as Powerlines, Firearms or Welding).

The examination of the fire scene is a clinical process which must be carefully applied. It is here where an extensive level of investigation experience and understanding of wildfire behavior pays off. And like any investigation process, the level of confidence in the cause determination is linked to the level of experience and training of the investigator.

Training fires set during the Wildfire Investigation Course in The Netherlands.

Training fires set during the Wildfire Investigation Course in The Netherlands.

A significant phase of the fire scene examination is ensuring the attending fire crew preserve the General Origin Area (the area first observed by them as burning on their arrival). Similar to the need to preserve a structure fire for examination, targeted scene management training of fire crews is vital to prevent evidence being washed away, bulldozed into the ground or driven over by vehicles – a challenging task in the open environment of a wildfire. Importantly they also are trained to record their observations on arrival at the scene (e.g., multiple ignition points, vehicles in the vicinity etc.).

The General Origin Area becomes the crucial focus for the scene examination by the wildfire investigator to interpret ‘Fire Pattern Indicators’, to reconstruct the overall Fire Pattern and accurately identify the ‘Specific Origin Area’ and ultimately the ‘Origin/Ignition Area’. (Fire Pattern Indicators occur as a result of physical objects such as vegetation, rocks and discarded rubbish, displaying changes from exposure to heat, flame and combustion by-products). The Specific Origin Area is where a careful and methodical process is applied to search for evidence of the Ignition Factor by sifting through the ash and debris. The locating of evidence of the cause at this location completes the process (be it exhaust carbon from of motor vehicle, molten metal particles from an arced powerline, or the match of an arsonist). Forensic analysis of remnant evidence then provides an essential part of the determination of the cause, more often a police role. However, a further challenge for the investigator, is evidence of the Ignition Source is not always present at wildfire origins.

Again, combining the skillsets of the wildfire investigator and the police investigator in this process is critical. This has been well demonstrated across many Australian and North American jurisdictions, to the point of the development of a specialist training course to foster this arrangement, modified and delivered in Australia in recent years. The final goal for the investigation team, being to accurately gather and represent all the facts surrounding the cause of the wildfire and to ensure it stands up to close analysis.

Not without its challenges, this meticulous process can be the most time consuming and if not thoroughly applied, an entire investigation runs the risk of being compromised. Crucial pieces of evidence can be overlooked along with the conclusive indication of the cause of the fire being missed or worse, incorrectly identified. However, when the methodology is applied and evidence located, the case can be presented in confidence for all concerned.

After delivering wildfire investigation training in Europe over the last few years, the value of agencies gaining these skills was confirmed. For the first time in The Netherlands, police and fire officers subsequently successfully investigated fire scenes, previously considered an impossible task. A further training course I conducted in Hawaii USA to forestry and police officers also saw a similar positive outcome, (both locations not normally known for wildfires). And after a recent meeting in Canada, local officers reviewed a number of fire scenes with me from the previous summer, allowing me to validate my Canadian counterparts findings- confirming the methodology used to investigate wildfires can be applied across all fuel types, across all topographies and though varying climates.

And given the emerging issue of unplanned wildfires across many Asian countries, my recent training of officers from across Southeast Asia provided an ideal opportunity for participants to see the process of wildfire investigation first hand in a pine forest near Seoul. With much interest in obtaining this skill, trainees were very keen to learn of the process to manage the changing threat of wildfire in their home countries.

Finally, the pro-active investigation of wildfires provides fire and law enforcement managers with a greater understanding of their wildfire cause trends, allowing for prevention targeted campaigns, to address arson activity, land management practices etc. And in my experience, the role of a Wildfire Investigator benefits through the blend of wildfire knowledge, along with an understanding of law enforcement- and as every fire scene is different, you never stop learning…

For more information, go to www.wildfirecause.com

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Richard is a former Police Officer in NSW and has extensive experience in Rural Fire Management and Investigation. He established and managed the NSW Rural Fire Service’s Fire Investigation Unit for nine years and more recently has worked in the ACT Emergency Services Agency. He is an Adjunct Associate Lecturer in Wildfire Investigation, with Charles Sturt University and has delivered wildfire investigation training in Australia, the USA, The Netherlands and South East Asia. Whilst seconded to the Australian Commonwealth Attorney General’s Department, he developed National Bushfire Arson Prevention arrangements and is a member of a number of North American based Wildfire Investigation Committees. Richard has completed a Graduate Certificate and Graduate Diploma in Fire Investigation. He manages a Wildfire Investigation Consultancy ‘Wildfire Investigations and Analysis’ providing wildfire cause opinions and training in wildfire investigation internationally.