Aspects of wildland fire investigations

Although some wildfires consist of simple brush fires that cause little to no harm, many wildfires can be extremely destructive and destroy property, natural resources and lives. The job of fire investigators is a big one, and there are many things they need to be aware of.

Investigators initially treat each wildfire scene as a potential criminal scene until evidence shows that the cause was natural or accidental.

Goals of an investigation

According to the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, when a wildfire investigation occurs, the involved parties, which include a team of law enforcement and fire service personnel, focus on a number of goals:

  • Figuring out the cause and origin location of the fire
  • Identifying the parties responsible for the fire
  • Looking for evidence of a crime
  • Documenting the cause and responsible parties
  • Providing necessary documentation for any court proceedings
  • Developing better prevention programs

Investigative elements

According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, the investigative parties follow guidelines that take a systematic approach based on science. Safety is a priority and includes wearing the proper gear, keeping an eye out for still-burning fires, noting weather changes and always having an escape route.

Preservation of the scene and evidence should occur as soon as possible. For smaller fire scenes, investigators establish a perimeter and prevent non-involved parties from entering. For larger fire scenes, this may not be possible, which is why determining the cause of origin quickly is helpful so they can place a perimeter around that specific area.

Some of the main aspects of the investigation include observing the area carefully, speaking with witnesses, searching for and documenting evidence and analyzing the flow of the fire. If the job is too daunting for the original assigned team, they should ask for assistance from other sources.