BLM Instructs Interagency Fire Investigation Training

By Brittany Sprout, Public Affairs Specialist

What’s more interesting than being a detective? Being a wildfire investigator! You won’t learn about this on Law & Order, but BLM’s got you covered!

Preventing fires in the future requires knowing how they started, which is why these classes are so vital for our fire program. Earlier this week, BLM’s Fire Mitigation and Education Specialists Carmen Thomason and Teresa Rigby instructed Wildland Fire Origin and Cause, which teaches students how to investigate fires, what causes fires, and clues to look for when investigating. ​The class was attended by students from many local, state and federal fire agencies to help develop skills and strengthen working relationships. 

 

 

Three people standing over burned grass.
Students broke up into groups to inspect their fire areas after getting a weather report from their instructor, which are also important in understanding the current conditions and conditions when the fire started, if available.

 

Although wildfires can occur naturally by lightning, the 10-year average of human-caused fires account for 87% of all wildfires in the United States. Arson, open burning, vehicles/equipment, and firearms are just a few of the many ways humans have caused fires. For example, Colorado’s costliest and second largest fire in the state, the East Troublesome Fire, was human-caused. Finding the origin and cause of fires isn’t easy, which is why our firefighters have a training opportunity to recognize the signs and follow the indicators.

 

 

White ash in a burned area.
These plots had several points of interest to give students the full experience, such as “exploded” cigarettes, which are common in burned areas. Due to the properties of cigarettes, when they catch on fire, they leave behind what looks like a small explosion of white ash. While not always the cause of fires, they are still important pieces of evidence to capture for investigations.

 

Each day, students had the opportunity to practice their new skills after spending the morning learning about investigation methods. Students traveled to Bear Creek Lake Park in Lakewood, CO where BLM staff and local fire departments set up realistic investigation situations. The areas had been burned previously with permission from the park to create plots for students to practice in. Students found different clues such as “exploded cigarettes,” suspicious paper products tucked under rocks, white ash areas, and the direction of fire as it burns the vegetation.

 

Rock in burnt area with burnt paper underneath it.
You may notice something suspicious about this rock, just like our students did – hence the nearby white flag. It is common for visitors on public lands to try to put out fires with rocks or other materials. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work and like this example, it can cause vegetation to eventually catch on fire.

 

“Every indicator is important when you’re investigating a fire,” said Carmen Thomason. “Even if something might not be the cause, we need to collect the evidence to make sure we accurately describe what may have happened.”

 

People standing in burned area with a marked plot to indicate fire origin.
Once groups scanned the area, followed clues, and brought over Jojo or Rotc, they would plot the location of the origin and cause of the fire. In a real investigation, the groups would take a lot of pictures and document everything they found. They can also collect evidence for further analysis.

 

While investigating plots, students would slowly search around the area and use colored flags to mark where the fire was backing or advancing, and points of interest to inspect further. Once they had a few points of interest, students could call over an accelerant detection canine – Jojo or Rotc. These dogs are specially trained to respond to accelerant odors by sitting. The canines can detect gasoline or other fuel types, which helps the investigators find the origin location and cause. These pups are invaluable and can make investigation much easier for our teams!

 

 

Woman stands with black dog in a burned area.
Meet Jojo! She is employed by the State of Colorado (sorry feds, she’s not a fan of USAJobs) and serves as a resource for investigating fires in the state. Jojo is trained to sit or even lay when she picks up a scent. Since she is a working dog, this is also how she is fed, and you can see her handler getting ready to give her some chow for finding an indicator.

 

This five-day-class is just one of the many opportunities professional firefighters and stakeholders/partners can take to learn about wildfires. Classes like this helps ensure everyone investigating fires is following the same methodology and keep wildfire investigations consistent throughout the country. For more information on our fire program, check out our website! https://www.blm.gov/programs/fire