CAROL HARRINGTON

KAMLOOPS, B.C. (CP) - Rumours about who started a nearby fire that forced 8,500 residents from their homes are running as rampant as the wildfire.

The most prevalent story told by locals is that the fire was accidentally set by a volunteer firefighter while working in the back of his McLure, B.C., acreage.

The story goes that he didn't properly put out his cigarette, a grass fire started, he scrambled to put it out but when it got out of control, he phoned 911.

Steve Grimaldi doesn't heed those rumours. The fire investigator assigned to the Barriere-McLure fire - named after towns the blaze swept through 50 kilometres north of Kamloops - wants hard facts.

"If you go in with predetermination of a cause and listen to what people say as fact, you aren't doing your job properly and you are going to be led astray," says Grimaldi, 44, who's been busy probing several fires ravaging south-central British Columbia.

Lightning has sparked most of B.C. fires this season but a large percentage are caused by people, often careless smokers or campers.

For a fire sleuth, sniffing out a fire's origin and whodunit is conducted much like a police investigation - collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses and doing lots of paperwork.

The fact-finding mission demands tedious work with a methodical approach in hot, dirty, dangerous conditions. To be good at it, it requires patience, persistence and years of experience.

Grimaldi, a fire investigator for almost seven years, often works alone, sometimes in the middle of a charred mountain forest, plunked there by a helicopter.

He totes a backpack stuffed with work tools - cameras, maps, a measuring tape, a two-way radio, a global positioning system, a hacksaw and a magnifying glass.

But for three Kamloops-area wildfires that have so far charred more than 250 square kilometres, destroyed 60 homes and a sawmill and at the peak forced 10,000 people to flee, Grimaldi wasn't probing the backcountry because the blazes were ignited near highways.

So far, Grimaldi has concluded one fire was started by a driver who tossed a lit cigarette out of a vehicle and a second blaze was likely caused by another careless smoker. But he continues to sift for clues.

After following up on several tips, Grimaldi doesn't think he'll catch the culprit who discarded the highway cigarette that caused one of the fires. Without eye witnesses, those are often the toughest cases to crack, he said.

"I tried to find that one cigarette butt, but the scene had been disrupted," he said.

"It's a popular spot where people discard cigarettes," he said, adding he found 60 dead butts on a 31-metre highway stretch where the fire started.

He timed the drive from Kamloops at 10 minutes - approximately the right amount of time to smoke a cigarette if it was lit upon leaving the city. Many smokers, he said, like to light one up to relax when they first hit the highway.

A few days before investigating that blaze, the fire gumshoe was called to investigate the Barriere-McLure fire - a massive blaze that had forced about 8,500 residents from their homes for about a week and is still raging out of control.

But on the way to the fire scene, Grimaldi was summoned to fight the blaze which was rapidly moving north, descending on the village of Louis Creek.

Putting on fire-retardant coveralls and steel-shank boots, Grimaldi, who previously fought forest fires for 20 years, sprayed down houses to try to prevent them from burning.

At one point, he narrowly escaped a barrage of flames after two walls of fire coming from opposite directions swooped down on him.

"My notes are a little shaky from that day," he said.

For the last few days, Grimaldi has been sifting through pieces of charred wood, soot and burned grass looking for clues of how and where the massive fire had started.

RCMP have announced the fire cause is "likely accidental," and fire officials have said it started near the McLure cafe on Highway 5. And even though Grimaldi has interviewed a person who readily admits starting the blaze, he continues gathering information.

"I now have a lot of evidence," Grimaldi said Sunday.

So far, he's got aerial and ground photos of the area, taken by firefighters and from water planes within minutes of when the fire had started.

He's completed a walk around the area, taking measurements and writing copious notes about the terrain, nearby tree species, the mountain slope and the weather.

"I'm setting the stage for what was going on before the fire," he said.

Using eye-witness accounts, he has tried to do a re-enactment of the scene, placing bright yellow markers as reference points for where specific objects and people were when the fire was ignited.

He has taken dozens of photographs as well as soil samples that will be further probed in laboratories.

"It's a process of elimination, going through a list of general and specific causes and ticking off the ones that don't apply," he said.

After conducting dozens of fire investigations, Grimaldi said he doesn't feare wildfires, but rather he appreciates their strength and never underestimates their menacing capabilities.

"I respect fire," he said. "It's very powerful and we're not in control of it a lot of the time."

Even though the fire sleuth's work is often demanding and exhausting, Grimaldi said he gets excited when he's called to solve yet another one.

"It's a challenge," he said. "The harder they are to solve, the greater yearning and ambition I have to find all the pieces of the puzzle."

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/10/2003 18:54 EST