Dowling, Donald R. and Gilberg, Andy. Vehicle Fire Investigation. National
Fire and Arson Report, Vol. 10, Nos. 1 and 2. pp. 3-23.
Abstract: This article discusses the investigation of vehicle
fires. It specifically focuses on determining the physical cause of the
fire. The author divides vehicle fires into two categories - arson and non-arson.
In arson cases, fuel is usually used as an accelerant and the ignition source
is usually a match. To determine arson, an investigator should look for
objects where they do not belong. Fuel should not be found on the passenger
seat and matches should not be discovered under the hood.
The author lists some tell-tale signs of arson and explains the reasoning
behind them. For example, a car that has been burned bumper to bumper with
no traces of paint has a high probability of being arson. There is not enough
gasoline and combustible material to cause that much damage before burning
itself out. The investigator must remember that there are always exceptions
to the rules. The list of clues the article provides is a guideline for
investigators. In the field of vehicle fires, generalities are difficult,
if not impossible to establish because of the vast differences in automobiles.
After the initial assessment, the entire vehicle and its surroundings
should be photographed before the investigation continues to ensure that
nothing is disturbed. Once the entire scene is documented, the vehicle identification
(VIN) numbers should be recorded. The National Auto Theft Bureau (NATB)
publishes a pocket guide for locating these numbers. The next step is to
take samples from the vehicles and the ground underneath it. The surrounding
area should be searched for empty containers that may have contained an
accelerant. Sometimes, a fingerprint can be obtained from these items. The
underside of the vehicle must be examined because it provides the investigator
with a wealth of information. Remember that a fire burns upwards, so the
paint should be in tact under the car. The hoses and lines should also be
examined to make sure none have been cut or severed.
The article provides in-depth procedures for determining the direction
of the flames by examining the evaporator core. The article also explains
how to examine the electrical systems to determine if the cause was electrical.
If all evidence points to a legitimate fire, the investigator must still
determine the exact cause to learn if a manufacturer's product was defected
or if service on the vehicle caused a part to fail. The article provides
an extensive list of common defects that may be helpful to investigators.