Fire investigators learn skills at Center

Fire investigators learn skills at Center

05 March 2011

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USA — Have you ever wondered how, after fire has burned thousands of acres, fire investigators can pinpoint the ignition site, determine if it was arson, human negligence or weather-related?

This past week, firefighters from federal, state and local firefighting agencies participated in a wild land fire investigation class that students said was worth their time, although it was a tough course.

The course was presented by the Bureau of Land Management, an agency responsible for the management of millions of acres of public. Instructors teaching the course were expert investigators from both the BLM and U.S. Forest Service.

Shawn Beck, state forester and instructor, told students that in order to be a good investigator, they must take as much time as necessary to determine the cause of the fire.

“If 50,000 acres is burned, you get to walk it until you come to the place where the burned area narrows. Then you start looking for the ignition source and start gathering evidence.”

On Wednesday, while the 30 participants from the two federal agencies, city of Carlsbad and Eddy County volunteer fire departments, Eddy County emergency management staff, and the county sheriff’s office, were in class at the Permian Basin Regional Training Center learning investigation and interviewing techniques, instructors and BLM firefighters were setting fires with different ignition sources behind the training center. They also threw in plastic bottles and soda cans ofwhich some burned and others only partially burned.

With the grass and other vegetation tinder dry, ignition was instant as Jennifer Myslivy, state BLM fire mitigation education specialist and lead fire investigator, lit a fire cracker. Meanwhile, a firefighting crew sprayed the perimeters of the sites chosen; guiding the fire in the direction they wanted.

Myslivy used fireworks at some sites, matches and accelerants at others. A fire team also lit 12 small patches where students later in the day would also have to get down on their hands and knees to find the burn indicators before tackling the large burn areas working in teams.

“We are leaving different indicator and ignition source clues for them. It’s going to be up to them to find them and determine what caused the fire and what direction it came from,” Myslivy explained as she lit another firecracker to start the next fire.

Greg Whitaker, parttime fire instructor for the BLM and former fire marshal for the state of Nevada, said the soda cans and plastic water bottles are clues that he and Myslivy left for the students. But mother nature also left some clues after the fires were put out. He showed the reporter a small cactus and a green weed that had not burned. The unburned vegetation would give the students a clue in terms of the burn pattern — the direction the fire was moving and whether it changed direction.

He also said evidence gathering is also an important part of being a fire investigator and that students will have the knowledge how to gather and preserve evidence after completing the course.

After their morning classroom session, students headed out to the burn sites. Their first assignment was to get down on their hands and knees and scrutinize the small burn patches and determine what was used to start the fire. There were 12 small sites and after a few minutes, they teams of two rotated to the next site until they had investigated all the sites.

The assignment was not easy. Some used magnifying glasses and most had their noses close to the ground as they searched for the ignition source.

Nate Skelton, fire investigator for the Carlsbad Fire Department and Robert Brader, Eddy County fire coordinator, worked together to find the ignition source. They said it was not easy but they were up to the task.

“It’s literally like trying to find a needle in a stack of needles,” Skelton said. “Robert and I did pretty in identifying the ignition source. I think we indentified all but five.”

Others were not as successful. Mattias Telles, a firefighter from the BLM Carlsbad Field Office, grinned and said: “I didn’t do very well. When they (instructors) pointed out the ignition source, I could see it. But I learned a lot in this exercise.”

Skelton said although he is a fire investigator for the city fire department, investigating a wildland fire is much more difficult.

“The signs leading us back to where the fire started in a wildland fire are much more subtle than investigating a structure fire. Like I said, it’s like trying to find a needle in stack of needles. But I have got a whole lot of this course,” Skelton said.

Brader agreed with his partner, and added, “This has been a great learning experience. It has been worth my time.”

Skelton said he believes the qualities a person needs to have to be good a fire investigator include having a good eye, patience and a love for investigating fires.

Krysia Baron, fire investigator from the Cibola National Forest, who is serving for the first time as an instructor, said she has been a fire investigator for five years and investigating wild land fires is a tough job.

“The hardest part of the job, I think, is the pressure put on you to find out what caused the fire,” she said. “It can be a long and tedious job, but I have had some success.”

Joel Arnwine, Eddy County emergency preparedness coordinator, said the class is the first he has taken in arson investigation and it has been well-worth the time he has taken out of his busy schedule to take the class.

“The most difficult part is understanding the different variants such as wind, topograph and fuel that contribute to the fire. Finding the cause is not easy either,” Arnwine said. “But it’s been a good investment of my time. Robert (Brader) and I work with the local fire departments, but this class had brought us together with the state and federal agencies that on occasion we with. We are all learning the same thing and will be on the same page.”

Myslivy said the class the second of a series of three in fire investingation. After obtaining their certificates, before they can become an official fire investigator on a federal land fires, the firefighters are required to work four or five fires to get the experience they need.

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