Small Fires Can Be Difficult to Investigate
Béland, Bernard. Small fires can be
difficult to investigate.
Fire and Arson Investigator. Vol 47 No 4 (June 1997). p 20.
Once in a while, one has the opportunity to examine the damages from
a small fire. These fires may not challenge the fire investigator, however,
they provide an opportunity to learn. Often, one learns more from these
small fires than from the large ones. In the large fire, it is often left
with numerous possibilities with no evidence to reject most of them. The
investigator is then left with many possible causes. Recently, this author
was a witness to a small fire that did almost no damage. The fire by itself
is of no interest, however, the lesson learned from it is enlightening,
and shows the difficulty that a small fire sometimes presents.
One evening, three of us were sitting around when we all smelled intermittent
smoke, like that of burning hay or dried grass. The house was thoroughly
inspected both inside and outside. Additional inspections were repeated
over the course of an hour. The source of smoke could not be located, since
it was intermittent. and there was a slight breeze. We also noted that we
never smelled the smoke when we were some distance from the house.
Eventually, some smoke was seen emerging from the ground beside a wooden
balcony. Clearly, a lit cigarette had been disposed of on the ground that
had recently been covered by about two inches of peat moss. Smoldering combustion
took place in the peat moss and had burned an area of about one foot in
That fire was easy to investigate and had quite an obvious cause. Let
us assume that the fire had extended to the wooden deck and the plastic
cladding of the house. Then the cause could have been difficult to establish.
Some of the obvious causes would have been arson, a discarded cigarette
or a child playing around with matches. To further complicate the analysis,
an extension cord with a hedge trimmer was plugged into an outlet right
above the point of origin. Assuming that a flaming fire had lasted for five
minutes or more, another reasonable hypothesis would have been a failed
wall outlet or a fault in the extension cord since arcing would have been
likely to happen.
The cigarette cause would have been far from evident if the fire had
lasted for a longer time with flames and falling debris. The owner of the
house quit smoking many years ago and was known as a nonsmoker. However,
he admitted to me that, in fact, he sometimes still buys a pack of cigarettes.
He did smoke before the smoldering combustion and had disposed of his cigarette
at that exact place where the smoldering fire was discovered. He disposed
of his cigarette quickly and carelessly when someone arrived because he
wanted to hide the fact that he did smoke occasionally.
A fire investigator that would have questioned most people close to that
friend would probably have found that no one smoked in the house. It is
quite common to receive "facts" that do not correspond to the
reality. The above case is a typical example. This author knows of numerous
cases in which nice people did not tell the truth. They hide some of the
facts to protect a child experimenting with fire or because the witness
wanted to hide his carelessness. This list could be extended without limits.
This small and simple fire teaches us a lesson. Such a small fire, under
other circumstances could have been difficult to investigate. In fact, one
would have been left with numerous reasonable hypotheses, with no way to
eliminate all of them but one.
In fact, in such a fire, if there were three fire investigators, probably
all of them will find a different cause by the process of elimination. The
common problem is that with three fire investigators, one often has three
different causes. Of course, that did not happen in this case. However,
this author has many examples of such small fires that could present a real
challenge because of some missing facts.
About the Author
For the past 30 years, Dr. Béland has studied fires under laboratory
conditions and also at fire scenes. Many of the fires, including full size
fires in buildings, were started intentionally to study their behavior.
Dr. Béland specializes in the study of ignition, thermal transfer
and electrical causes. Many systems and devices were used in his experiments
to study their outcome and to determine what types of damage could be associated
with the causes that resulted in the fire. He has also experimented with
numerous systems to determine under which conditions they could constitute
Dr. Béland's research has resulted in the printing of over 100
technical articles in specialized journals such as: L'Ingenieur, Fire Technology,
Journal of Forensic Sciences, Fire & Arson Investigator, Power Apparatus
and Systems, Electrical Business, Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical
Engineers and others.
Dr. Béland has investigated over 900 fires and electrical failures
in which a total of 300 lives have been lost. He is retained by equipment
manufacturers, power companies and research centers. Dr. Béland has
done consulting work and lecturing in eight Canadian Provinces, 37 states
throughout the U.S., four European countries and New Zealand. He has served
as an expert witness in approximately 100 cases for numerous jurisdictions.
Dr. Béland has taught at numerous universities in Canada. He recently
retired from the Universite de Sherbrooke as a Professor in the Department
of Electrical Engineering. Dr. Béland is currently a private consultant
in his own firm.
Reprinted with permission.