Kim Round, landscape architect with the U.S. Forest Service, examines a burn area during a wildland fire-investigation class in Ridges Basin on Wednesday. Round said tweezers help her feel the weight of an object and hear the sound it makes when removing it from the earth. Twenty-nine police, fire and forest officials attended the class.George Surmi, deputy fire marshal with the Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, notes possible origins of a burn area during the wildland fire-investigations class in Ridges Basin on Wednesday. Students went to 16 locations within a burn area in Ridges Basin looking to see if they could put theory into practice and find the proper ignition sources.
RIDGES BASIN – Fire investigators in training sifted through the blackenedremains of several human-caused wildfires Wednesday in Ridges Basin.
They were looking for possible sources of ignition – fireworks, burnt matches,burnt cigarettes and catalytic-converter particles. And they found them.
The U.S. Forest Service started these fires in Ridges Basin as part of aweeklong fire-investigation class. Twenty-nine firefighters and law-enforcementofficers, including a Durango Fire & Rescue Authority firefighter, areparticipating. People have come from Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah andColorado.
“It’s really valuable training,” said George Surmi, deputy firemarshal with the Rescue Authority. A lot of crossover knowledge exists betweeninvestigating house fires and wildfires, he said.
Students spend mornings in the classroom learning how wildland fires start,what environmental factors are necessary to fuel wildfires, and how to protect apoint of origin as if it were a crime scene.
“We’re teaching them how to enter the burn area based on the indicatorsthey’re seeing,” said Brenda Schultz, a special agent for the U.S. ForestService. “We teach the methodology of how to walk the perimeter of the burnarea looking for (evidence).”
In the afternoon, students go to Ridges Basin to practice their new skills.
On Wednesday, students went to 16 locations within a burn area in RidgesBasin looking for possible ignition sources. Some students used magnifyingglasses and tweezers to sift through the burnt ground.
“What they’re doing is looking for a small, tiny black item such as aburnt match among a bunch of black ash and needles,” Schultz said. “Itis an acquired skill to be able to pick that item out of the black ash.”
One student was confident that a completely burned cigarette was the ignitionsource he was searching for. Then an instructor told him it was a tricky workstation. The student went back to searching for other possible fire starters. Hedidn’t find any, and decided the instructor was throwing him for a loop.
The Forest Service is hosting this week’s class in Durango, but the classitself is put on by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, a department ofthe U.S. Department of Homeland Security. There will be 14 classes conductedthis year around the United States, including two in Colorado.
The goal is to educate as many people as possible about wildland-fireinvestigations, said Mike Heath, an instructor.
In determining the cause of a wildfire, investigators must first find theorigin of the fire. Because the point of origin usually burns at lowtemperatures, finding the source of ignition is usually possible, Schultz said.
“The evidence is not destroyed as frequently as people think,” shesaid.