As the spring fire season approaches, fire investigators across the country will be responding to wildfires to conduct origin and cause investigations. In many jurisdictions, investigators are assigned to a type of investigation that is unfamiliar. During the response, the investigator may be thinking that it is no big deal, having already investigated hundreds of structure fires. How hard can a wildfire be? The answer is simple; you must be trained in wildfire investigation to understand the process. If the investigator has no formal training as a wildland firefighter then you need to expand your education in this field.
The National Fire Academy offers training programs including S-130 and S-190 and can be completed through online study. The S-130 is the basic wildland firefighter training and the S-190 is an introduction to wildland fire behavior. These two training programs will certify the investigator to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s (NWCG) standard as a basic wildland firefighter.
Local investigators must understand that this type of investigation requires special training and certifications to perform a competent fire investigation. A few years ago, I enrolled in the FI- 210, Wildland Fire Origin and Cause Determination. This class was instructed by members of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service and the commitment and professionalism by these instructors was second to none. FI-210 will give the investigator a solid foundation on how to correctly investigate a wildfire. If you are involved in investigations and have the potential to respond to a wildfire, then S-130, S-190 and FI -210 are strongly recommended.
Part 1 of this article will hit the main points for the local investigator to focus on, not the seasoned wildfire investigator. Remember, becoming familiar with this type of investigation takes hours of additional training and on-scene time is required.
As always, safety is our first concern! A minimum of two investigators should be assigned to the incident. Always operate under the incident management system and remain in constant communication with fire suppression units at the scene. Become familiar with the fireline handbook and ensure that you follow the standard firefighting orders and watch-out situations. Use all your personal protective equipment (PPE) that was issued. The proper use of PPE can save your life if fire conditions change.
A wildfire is a dynamic event where many different strategies and tactics are employed. Be sure to monitor the radio for changing fire conditions and weather reports. Your escape route must be constantly evaluated and always have a backup plan if necessary. Be aware of aircrafts conducting air drops and heavy equipment operating in the area. Conducting investigations near railroads, power lines and roadways can be deadly; always stay alert and monitor your surroundings. Remember, it is critical that the investigator adheres to all safety policies established by local, state and federal agencies.
Investigating wildfires is a complex endeavor using science, knowledge, skill and technology. Whether it’s a structure, vehicle or wildfire, investigators must use a systematic approach. Often the use of the systematic approach will uncover new data for analysis. The systematic approach identified in the NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations is the scientific method. The use of the scientific method will provide the investigator with an organizational process to succeed at a fire investigation. The scientific method is broken down into seven steps.
- Recognize the need
- Define the problem
- Collect data
- Analyze data
- Develop a hypothesis
- Test the hypothesis
- Select the final hypothesis