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Fire investigations: We’re not in Hollywood anymore


Jan. 22, 2018

Photo of a fire investigator at a fier scene.
Photo: Investigators from the State First Marshal Division sift through ashes and dust for evidence of what caused a fire – and sometimes it’s the size of a grain of sand. No wonder fire investigation is a time-consuming endeavor.​

Ah, television. Wouldn’t it be great if our lives were like that? We’d all be richer and better looking, and, best of all, our problems could be solved in tidy 23- or 47-minute increments. But this is the real world, and that means that problems – like what caused a devastating fire, for example – are a lot more complex and time-consuming to solve.

But that doesn’t stop the fire investigators from our State Fire Marshal Division from trying. After all, on average, a fire is reported every 37 minutes in Minnesota. That adds up to more than 12,000 per year, with an exponentially larger number of people looking for answers wondering how the blaze started. So you could say our fire investigation team has their work cut out for them.

And although the causes of some fires are readily apparent, others can be a true mystery – and that’s only one thing that affects the length of a fire investigation. Here are some others:

  • The type of building that burned.
  • How many jurisdictions are involved.
  • Pending litigation.
  • Evidence burned beyond all recognition.

Sometimes investigators are looking for something the size of a grain of sand, sifting painstakingly through ashes and dust to find it. And yes, there are guidelines to follow – hundreds of them, to be exact – in the National Fire Protection Association Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations. Add to that the fact that they have to send anything they find to the lab for analysis, and it makes sense that fire investigations aren’t tied up in a neat little bow just hours or days after a fire.

No, fire investigation isn’t quite “as seen on TV.” But that doesn’t make it any less necessary. Our fire investigators take it very seriously, and they take pride in doing a thorough and professional job – no matter how long it takes.