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Small Fires Can Be Difficult to Investigate

Bernard Béland

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.

The Fire

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 diameter.


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 a danger.

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.

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