CAMBRIDGE, Minn. (WCCO) — From the insignificant to catastrophic, every fire has a story. Probing the forensics of fire is the job of trained investigators.
Problem is: The Minnesota State Fire Marshal’s Office has only 11 certified fire investigators covering the entire state. Each year, there are over 12,000 structure fires that must be investigated.
The state demands that all fires be thoroughly looked into for public safety reasons, insurance claims and potential criminal wrongdoing.
“We can’t physically make it to every single fire,” said Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal Jim Smith.
Smith said that means most of our fires in Minnesota will get investigated by local departments. That’s why the State Fire Marshal has created a school where representatives of fire departments from around the state are taught the specific techniques of probing for the many potential causes of fire.
“It’s become quite apparent that we need people at the local level who know how to conduct an investigation,” Smith said.
After staging five different types of fires in an abandoned Cambridge house, firefighters from departments large and small break into small teams and go to work.
The students engage in role playing by interviewing those involved in the fires, like homeowners and witnesses. They then begin to analyze specific burn patterns left behind and collect samples.
One example at the school appeared to be a simple cigarette dropped into the cushions of a couch. But first impressions aren’t always right.
“Just like anything else in life, sometimes it appears to be this, but it ends up being something else,” said instructor and chief fire investigator James Iammatteo. “And that’s what we’re trying to teach them here.”
Firefighter Scott Widstrom is from the Ramsey Fire department. Travis Wood is chief of Dalbo’s volunteer department.
“Should we take a photo of that outlet?” Wood asked of his teammates as they investigated the scenario.
The firefighters probe the scene and interview neighbors.
To one teenager, Widstrom explains, “the best way to stay out of trouble is to be 100 percent honest, OK?”
Soon, the firefighters spot alligator charring on the wood studs — a roadmap to where the fire burned hottest.
“We’re thinking that, or at least the first hypothesis is that the fire originated here on the sofa somewhere,” Wood said.
But samples reveal the use of an accelerant, and the fire eventually proves to be arson.
Meantime, other teams also examine other apparent accidental fires, involving hotplates and space heaters.
By week’s end, the hands-on classroom is the best way to earn expertise and state certification.
“We have to take all of the stories and put them together and come up to a totality of the truth,” Iammatteo said.