A construction site fire in Clark County, NV, caused $90 million in damages, according to a recent article shared in the Daily Dispatch. The taskforce working to determine the fire’s cause includes fire investigation personnel from Clark County, Las Vegas, Henderson, Nevada state, and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). Chiefs Bob Horton and Jeff Buchanan spoke with Dan Heenan, who has 30 years of experience in the ATF as a Certified Fire Investigator, about the process of investigating fires and how this can help inform fire safety policies.
Learn about fire investigations, from Dan Heenan certified Fire Investigator, in the latest episode of Fire Headlines by the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA).
A construction site fire in Clark County, NV, caused $90 million in damages, according to a recent article shared in the Daily Dispatch. The task force working to determine the fire’s cause includes fire investigation personnel from Clark County, Las Vegas, Henderson, Nevada state, and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). Chiefs Bob Horton and Jeff Buchanan spoke with Dan Heenan, who has 30 years of experience in the ATF as a Certified Fire Investigator, about the process of investigating fires and how this can help inform fire safety policies.
Fire Headlines listeners also sent in some questions that are relevant to the fire investigation topic. Podcast host Inanna Hencke asks Dan to answer several of these questions, including the reason why so many fires are classified as having an ‘undetermined’ cause.
Dan notes that, depending on local laws or the severity of a fire, different organizations may handle the process of investigating fires, from local fire departments to insurance companies to national fire investigation organizations. Bob brings up his personal experience with fire investigations when he worked in Nevada and how that changed when he moved to work as a fire chief in Oregon, which has fire marshals officially investigate fires.
Dan’s own career with the ATF involved a lengthy educational process to become a Certified Fire Investigator and has led him to consult and teach internationally. Jeff is curious about scenarios when fire departments should request federal resources in investigating a fire’s cause. Dan considers it a mark of experience to know when additional expertise is required for fire investigations. He believes that bringing in different perspectives is a great strength when considering how a fire started. Local professionals will know common risks, while certified fire investigators have broader knowledge about how different fires can behave.
Dan describes the process of fire investigations, which may begin while a fire is still burning. He highlights the importance of gathering early eyewitness testimony and examining the scene after a fire is extinguished to analyze the pattern of the flames. The first two steps of fire investigation are to identify where the fire started (its origin) and figure out why it ignited (the fire’s cause). If the cause is determined to be intentional—an incendiary fire—then the third step is to identify who set the fire.
Fire investigators are very careful in addressing the cause of a fire, which leads to a question that Fire Headlines listeners sent in: Why are so many fires that are investigated are noted as ‘undetermined’? Dan explains, “If I’m left with two valid hypotheses that are still competing against each other, then I have to say, ‘It’s undetermined.’” He clarifies, “In the vast majority of times, we kinda know what caused the fire but we’re just not 100% sure. If you’re not 100% sure, we don’t want to guess.”
If a fire investigator concludes that a fire was incendiary and someone is then arrested for that arson, Dan explains that “arson is such a subtle criminal charge that there’s not a lot of defense attorneys that understand how to defend that. So, I’m about to take someone’s civil liberties away. […] Even if they’re found innocent at the end, they’ve still had to hire an attorney, they’ve had their reputation dismantled, they may have lost their job. So, any time somebody says, ‘It’s an incendiary,’ […] it has major ramifications for the person you accuse of that fire.”
This is also a reason for fire investigators to withhold information about an ongoing investigation from the public or from politicians. If a fire’s cause is determined to be incendiary and someone is arrested, they have the right to a fair trial. Having preconceived ideas based on information about the fire investigation can bias the court system.
Fire Causes and Safety
Bob sees a problem with the fact that, “From a policy perspective, when we think about what is causing fires in America, we kind of land on, we’re unsure.” Fire policies emerge to mitigate fires and rely on information about what causes fires in order to reduce these causes. If fire causes are undetermined, fire reduction policies cannot be well-informed.
Dan agrees that fire causes are often known to 80% degrees of certainty, and fire investigation is the first step in fire prevention. However, making a cause official in the fire investigation may have wide-ranging effects. Discussing the possible official conclusion about the cause of a fire, Dan says, “’Undetermined’ is a valid conclusion, but I would argue that it’s only a conclusion about a third of the time and probably less. Most fires are accidental in this country. But we have to be judicious when we say it’s an accidental fire, because we’re so litigious and it could cost a corporation.” He cites several examples of appliance or car malfunctions and the ramifications for companies that have to pay customers who experienced these accidental fires.
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