How are fires investigated in Colorado?

The remains of a house on St. Andrews Lane in Louisville burned into the early hours of Friday. Photo by Robert Sanchez

Environment

In the aftermath of the Marshall Fire, Colorado’s ability to investigate fires has come under scrutiny. We asked the state’s only full-time fire investigator to explain the complicated and nuanced process.


Dawn Rooney has long had a fascination with fire. “It’s something that demands respect,” she said. “It’s a living, breathing thing.”

As the only full-time investigator with Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC), Rooney knows firsthand just how powerful and destructive a single flame can be. Over the past two years, Rooney has examined 110 fires across the Centennial State (this includes wildfires, residential and vehicular fires), spending countless hours connecting seemingly disparate data wires in an effort to determine how fires start. “It’s so complicated,” she says of the process of scrutinizing burn patterns for clues. “There is so much to try, watch, absorb and try to analyze properly.”

Centennial State’s ability to investigate the fires has be subject to scrutiny in recent months as officials try to determine the cause of the Marshall Fire, which destroyed 1,089 homes in Boulder County. Historically, Colorado has failed to identify the cause of wildfires. According to an in-depth investigation by Colorado Public Radio (CPR) released in November 2021, our state ranks last among Western states in resolving large, human-ignited wildfires. Between 2000 and 2018, investigators determined the origin of only 43% of the state’s large wildfires. In response, state Democrats recently proposed bill to bolster work at the DFPC, which currently has only six part-time investigators in addition to Rooney, the only full-time investigator.

“We look forward to working with the sponsors of the bill and learning more about what they want to accomplish through the DFPC,” said Mike Morgan, director of the DFPC. 5280 via email correspondence with a spokesperson.

In the meantime, to help better understand the process, we asked Rooney to describe how the Colorado fires are studied. (The DFPC declined to comment on the Marshall fire because it is still under investigation, so this article outlines its general process.)

Once called for an assignment, Rooney first tries to learn everything she can about the incident. This includes details such as the precise moment the flames erupted; what were the weather conditions at the time; how many people responded to the fire and what type of equipment did they use to fight the flames; who was first on the scene and whether they can describe exactly what they saw when they arrived; and whether there are other witnesses who might have valuable information.

Then, once Rooney arrives on the scene, she conducts a full review of the remaining evidence. This part of the process can get “extremely complicated,” Rooney says, depending on how much scene remains and what character marks investigators are able to read. These marks, which Rooney calls “patterns,” can help indicate which direction the fire was burning.

Rooney, who has had more than 200 hours of training for his profession, examines many different objects for patterns – including rocks, concrete, wood, trees, grass and construction remains – then tries to put this information together with other clues. “The patterns almost speak to you,” she explains. “And I know that sounds totally corny, but if you can read the schematics, and you know how the fire was fought, and you can read the airflow and the direction and know which way the fire is going moved, he will talk to you and almost tell you the path he has traveled.

Fire investigator Dawn Rooney and her dog JoJo. Photo courtesy of Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control

Rooney also searches for any possible ignition sources that could have started the fire with the help of JoJo, a three-year-old service dog who can detect the presence of flammable liquids. Throughout the process, Rooney takes photos, handwrites observations in notebooks, and searches online to better understand what she sees on stage.

Sometimes, however, there isn’t much physical evidence to work with. And that’s where witness statements come in. Rooney asks the witnesses a litany of questions, such as: Where did you first see flames? Where did you first see smoke? Was it up or down? Do you remember that window was intact? Was this door open or closed? Its objective is to obtain the best possible memory, while taking into account the fact that the witnesses may have just experienced something traumatic. Video footage of the fire, if it exists, can also provide crucial information, Rooney says.

Some fire investigations are more complicated than others. Vehicular fires, in general, can be extremely difficult because they occur in such a small area, Rooney says. And wildfires, she adds, can be difficult because they are so out of control. A burned down multi-story condo could be more difficult than a burned down single family structure. And a fire in a hoarder’s house would probably be more complicated than a house that doesn’t have as many combustibles inside. “Fire reacts differently in different environments,” says Rooney. “So that’s reading a different book.”

Rooney cannot say how often she is able to determine the cause of a fire, but recalls how complicated and difficult the process can be. “It’s a giant puzzle that you put together. And you have to understand, do these pieces fit or not?” she said. “And hopefully the pieces come together and you get a pretty good picture of what happened in that fire. [That] doesn’t always happen. »

Under Colorado state law, investigations into the origin and cause of fires are the responsibility of local fire chiefs, and the DFPC exists to support local jurisdictions. Often that means Rooney is called in to help with the most complicated cases that local jurisdictions can’t resolve on their own, says Chris Brunette, chief of the DFPC’s fire and life safety section.

As for Rooney, who has spent eight to more than 80 hours on a single investigation, she realizes in the aftermath of a fire that people just want answers. But getting that clarity takes patience. “We want to do our due diligence and make sure we get it right,” she says. “And sometimes it takes a bit of time.”

(Read more: Why grassland fires always surprise us)

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