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Fire investigations: More than just ashes

Aug. 15, 2019

Fire investigators search through a burned out car after a garage fire


What images come to mind when you think of fire investigations? Perhaps an investigator in sooty gear, sifting through piles of ash in the smoking aftermath of a fire? Finding a piece of evidence that has burned beyond recognition and is now the size of a grain of sand? Using it to figure out what happened in this burnt-out shell of a building that was once someone’s livelihood or home?

You’re right: Fire investigators — including our 12 State Fire Marshal Division (SFMD) investigators — do all those things. But there’s more to it than that. Once they leave the scene, they shed the grimy gear for more professional attire. They trade the piles of ash for cell phone and financial records, sifting through those instead. They exchange shovels and chisels for interview skills and compassion, talking to people who are shattered from losing everything – maybe even a loved one.

No matter the outfit, no matter the venue, fire investigators spend their time pursuing one thing: answers. They find answers to mysteries that will haunt them for the rest of their lives: devastating fires meant to cover up financial crimes. A Christmastime blaze that kills a firefighter, his wife and their grandchildren.

Another investigation that will stick with investigators involved a raging fire, a murder and a kidnapped little girl. A woman showed up at the scene of a mobile home fire, telling investigators that her 5-year-old daughter had spent the night there with her babysitter, who died in the fire. But the fire had been at 3:30 a.m., and it was already noon – it was now a race against the clock to find the little girl.

SFMD and local investigators started sifting, digging and searching for the child along with other state, local and federal partners. After going through the debris three times, they determined she wasn’t there. But that meant she had been kidnapped, and with every hour that passed, they were less likely to find her alive.

Investigators returned the little girl to her family, and her abductor was convicted of kidnapping, rape and murder. He is currently serving a 52-year prison sentence. But not all fire victims are so lucky. Even if investigators discover the cause of the fire, they can’t bring back what the victim lost: Precious belongings. A home. A loved one.

The repercussions of a fire last for years. Perhaps you’re going on vacation outside the country, or getting a new type of ID, and you realize only then that your passport or birth certificate or other important document was lost in the fire. Or perhaps it’s just a photo of the loved one killed in the fire, whose face you’d give anything to see again.

Knowing the cause of a fire may help the victims find closure, but it has another benefit as well. The more fire investigators learn about the causes of fire, the better we can all become at preventing future fires. Because no one should have to stand at the burnt-out remnants of a blaze, wondering whether their child was inside.