Burning down the house…

Clovis firefighters Jeff Allen, Eric Blair and Steve Logan keep an eye on a fire Friday, Oct 17, as they demonstrate a kitchen fire as part of an arson exercise for the Chapter of International Association of Arson Investigators conference.

By Jack King

The room — in the Girl Scout Little House at Seventh and Sycamore streets — was a mess.
In one corner the wall and floor were charred black and a small sofa, gutted by fire, looked like something had taken a big, soot-stained bite out of it. The air was thick with the smell of wet, dead ash that clung to clothes and the insides of noses.
The five men, dressed in overalls and heat-proof, water-proof boots, had already whipped out their notebooks to jot down details and make sketches of the room.
“So, what do you see?” asked their instructor, city of Clovis Fire Investigator Jeff Allen.
The five — Willie C. Brown, a fire inspector with the Lovington Fire Department; Ed Griego, a criminal investigator with the New Mexico Insurance Fraud Bureau; Ed Isasi, a volunteer with the Willard Fire Department; Dean Lamb, chief of the Horse Mountain Fire Department in Datil; and Randy Wakeland, a fire captain with the Farmington Fire Department — were in Clovis for the New Mexico chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators’ annual convention, held last week.
Fifty-five people from all over the state attended the convention, said Allen, who was elected the association’s president during the proceedings.
Approximately 24 of the conventioneers were at the Little House on Thursday for an exercise that let them put the principles of investigation they’d learned that week into practice. There were four groups, each with five or six members, each with its own fire-investigation problem in a different room of the condemned building.
In Group 1, Lamb pointed to an electrical cord that ran from an outlet on the wall down the burned corner of the room.
“Looks like it started here,” he said. “See there’s a nail through the cord.”
Looking behind the coach, he pointed to a spot along the baseboard — a circle of soot darker than all the other soot.
“And here is where it got the hottest,” he said.
To Group 1 it seemed apparent that the nail through the wire disrupted the wire’s electrical current, causing it to overheat and catch the wall, and the sofa, on fire.
“But,” said Isasi, “we’ve got to pull the couch out. We’ve just scratched the surface.”
Before they moved the sofa, though, Allen reminded them to take plenty of pictures of it and to label each picture. Evidence from a fire scene may not go to trial for two or three years, so everything needs to be documented, clearly and in detail, he said.
Sonja Everitt, a certified fire investigator with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who took vacation time to serve as an instructor at the convention, pointed out that not all the day’s participants were fire investigators and the IAAI convention had offered classes in both basic and advanced investigation. The classes and Thursday’s exercise were aimed at making the participants more familiar with investigation terminology and with the idea that a fire investigation should be carried out according to a scientific methodology, she said.
With the sofa moved, Group 1 zeroed in on two spots on the floor. They were sunk more deeply than the rest of the burned area under the sofa and were caked with a white residue.
“Yeah. There’s definitely something there,” said Brown.
“Accelerant?” asked Lamb.
“Yeah,” they all agreed at once. Now the scene looked more like an arson.
At a real fire scene, if they identified a spot where gasoline, lighter fluid or some other fire starter might have been poured they would take a sample of the contaminated floor, then take another sample at an uncontaminated spot across the room — and it might take weeks, or even months, for the samples to come back from a lab.
But, in the Little House exercise, instructor Mike Sorensen, a deputy chief with the Berrendo Fire Department, decided to shorten the process — and throw a monkey wrench into Group 1’s enthusiastic theorizing.
“What if you sent your samples to the lab and they came back negative for accelerants?” he asked.
Faced with their blank faces, he added, “What’s the couch made of?”
Outside, the group lit a piece of the sofa’s polyurethane stuffing. It dripped like a wax candle. What looked like accelerant actually was the stuffing making the fire more intense, Sorensen told them.
“People worry about fire damage, then they go out and buy overstuffed furniture for their houses,” he added, shaking his head.
Even if some of the firefighters would not go home to be fire investigators, what they learned at the convention would give them a better sense of what to look for at a fire, Allen said.
Thursday’s exercise put the terminology they’d learned in the classes into a real world context, said Isasi.
“And it let you know that going with your first conclusion could be wrong,” added Brown.