5/21/2013 10:00:00 PM BURNING QUESTIONS: Class teaches firefighters to recognize signs of arson
Kristi Gagnon, Camp Verde Fire District/Courtesy photo
A vehicle fire presents a challenge to students who must determine the cause of the blaze.
Lisa Irish The Daily Courier
Forty-four students gathered around the burned-out model of a living room during a recent arson investigation class in Prescott. They photographed the structure's remains, diagrammed the scene and identified different burn patterns.
"This puts information you learn about in a book into a practical context," Camp Verde Fire District Fire Marshal Kristi Gagnon said.
Gagnon helped coordinate the building and burning of the models, called burn cells, which were set up like an office, kitchen, living room and bedroom.
"Accelerants found in certain living areas can affect fires in different ways," Gagnon said.
Firefighters, law enforcement personnel and insurance investigators from all over the state took this class - the second in a four-part series - in late April. Statewide instructors taught the class under the guidance of the International Association of Arson Investigators Arizona Chapter. The course provided over 40-hours of advanced level training.
"When we investigate fires, we will come up with one of four cause determinations," Prescott Fire Division Chief Don Devendorf said. "They are accidental, undetermined, natural, or incendiary. The last one, incendiary, talks to someone purposely starting the fire."
Devendorf, a student in the class, noted that a fire investigator does not designate a fire as arson.
"If the evidence points to the cause being purposeful, or incendiary in our terms, then law enforcement takes it on with regard to charging, including arson," Devendorf said.
During the first weeklong class in the series, students learned about the job of an investigator: fire causes, interviewing, evidence, rules and regulations, protocols, fire behavior, and investigative clues, Devendorf said.
During the second weeklong course in Prescott, students expanded on theories and practices described in the first class, as well as specifics about wildland fires, natural gas- and propane-fueled fires, fire scene photography, working with private-sector investigators, and the professional path to become a certified fire investigator, Devendorf said.
Students also looked at how electrical systems can help determine fire growth, whether they were part of the cause or not, Devendorf said.
Mandy Ayars with Central Yavapai Fire District's Fire Prevention Team, another student, said she learned how to sketch a fire scene, rule out different causes of fire, the temperatures that propane and natural gas ignite, and why insurance companies investigate fires.
"We also went over the different classifications of youth fire-setters and why they may play with fire," Ayars said.
Fire investigators not only help determine a fire's cause, they also try to prevent similar fires in the future, and share statistics with national organizations, Ayars said.
Students also examined a vehicle fire and two wildland fires at Goldwater Lake.
"Rapid Towing graciously provided a vehicle for us to use in the training," Gagnon said. "If it weren't for businesses assisting us by providing items such as vehicles, we would not be able to put on this very important and necessary training."
The Hassayampa Inn hosted the lecture part of the class in its ballroom and provided rooms for students.
Prescott Fire Department provided an engine company, water, a hose and stood by for safety when the cells and the car were burned at the Prescott Training Center on Sundog Ranch Road. Those firefighters also started, oversaw, and controlled the wildland fires at Goldwater Lake, then made sure the fires were extinguished.
"All in all, it was a great class, put on by some excellent instructors and practitioners of the art," Devendorf said.
In the fall, most students will take the third class in the series in Flagstaff. In this class, they will expand on what they've learned and document and submit a fire investigator report.