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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.

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