Montana/Dakotas

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Training Prepares Fire Investigators to Answer Critical Questions

Story by Jason Caffey, Montana State Office
Photos by Cindy Gradin, USFS

Students looking at burned areaStudents examining burned area

Students in the class study the fire behavior indicators after having grid-searched the specific point of origin and located the cause of the fire (a firework located near the ruler at the bottom of the burn). 

The same question comes up with every wildland fire: “How did it start?”
           
While the word “lightning” is the answer in many cases, many others are not so easily explained. The realm of “human-caused” fires is far more complicated, and requires some skilled reasoning to define.
 
Thanks to three Wildfire Origin and Cause Determination classes held this spring, various agencies throughout Montana and neighboring states now have nearly 100 trained wildfire investigators to help answer these questions. Through classroom lectures and field exercises, students learned the science and methodology of reading fire indicators to determine the point of origin and cause of a wildfire.  
 
To mimic wildland arson fires, instructors and firefighters set small burns under controlled settings with various sources of ignition. Students investigated the scenes to find the points of origin and determine the causes. The practical exercise on the final day included processing a fire scene and interviewing suspects and witnesses -- roles well played by BLM fire program managers.
The class hosted by the Montana State Office April 30-May 4 was attended by BLM rangers and firefighters from Montana, Nevada, Utah, South Dakota and Wyoming. The U.S. Forest Service, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Montana Department of Justice (State Fire Marshals) and the Lewis & Clark County Sheriff’s Office also attended. The training was funded with money obtained as the result of an investigation of a human-caused fire in South Dakota. Additional classes were held in Miles City and Missoula earlier this spring.
           
Whenever the cause of a wildfire is in doubt, a fire investigator can be requested through the local fire dispatch office. The BLM Law Enforcement Duty Officer number is 800-826-3023 and someone is available 24/7 for any type of crime report on public lands.