Investigators Sharpen Skills in California Forest

Fire investigation students look "for a black needle in a black haystack" during Calif. training.

June 08--While the sun grew hot and high in the sky above them on Thursday, Nate Nelms and Von Gruber were on their hands and knees peering at the burned earth.

The two fire investigation students were surrounded by black grass that had burned just hours earlier. Among the charred remains were signs that could lead them to the fire's point of origin and indicators of how it was started.

While the blanket of black across the ground might look inscrutable to most, Andrea Saltzman, a fire prevention officer for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, could read signs in the ashes.

"It's something like a mystery. It's similar to tracking an animal through the woods. The fire does the same thing. It'll leave marks," Saltzman said.

Saltzman, a fire prevention officer for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, was teaching other fire officials this week how to investigate wildfires.

The annual weeklong training at the Forest Service's training headquarters off Airport Road in Redding drew 31 students this year. Some came from as far away as the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara.

Beth Brady, a fire prevention officer from the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Area, said fire investigators are called to nearly every wildland fire to determine where it began and how it started.

Andrea Capps, a spokeswoman for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, said there had been 91 fires statewide on Forest Service land this year and 90 of them were caused by people, either intentionally or accidentally.

Investigations are important because they determine not just civil or criminal or civil liability, but the information is also used for prevention, Brady said. She cited an example where investigations were used to uncover the cause of a series of fires along Interstate 5 through the Sacramento River canyon north of Redding.

Through investigations they were able to determine most of the fires were started from either faulty brakes on trucks and cars and safety tow chains dragging on the ground and throwing sparks that ignited roadside grass, Brady said.

From that information, fire officials developed a public awareness campaign in 2012 called One Less Spark aimed at reducing vehicle-caused fires.

On Thursday, Forest Service officials set fires on small plots in an area in east Redding, and for their final exam the student investigators worked in teams to find each fire's point of origin and determine how they started. They also role-played interviewing witnesses to the fire.

With fire often destroying evidence, finding cause and location can be very difficult, Saltzman said.

"It's like looking for a black needle in a black haystack," she said.

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