'No fire is exactly the same': Fire investigators find clues in the ashes

Once the flames are extinguished, the work of a fire investigator is just beginning.

About 40 investigators from across the province have gathered in Strathcona County to brush up on their skills at the Fire Investigation Association of Alberta’s spring training session.

It’s their job to determine the origin and cause of fires.

“When we go into any fire, there’s a lot more than just … what you see on TV,” FIAA president John McDermott told CBC News.

“While we might come on the same type of scene, no fire is exactly the same.”

Fire investigators have a lot to consider while processing a scene, from examining the burn patterns on walls to interviewing witnesses and firefighters, he said.

Investigations can take days or last for months while evidence is processed in the lab and hypotheses are tested. For example, investigators might try to prove a theory about a vehicle fire by doing test burns on a car from an auto wrecker, McDermott said.

The trainees spent Wednesday afternoon practising and learning new skills as they worked through simulation investigations of vehicle and structure fires.

Watch: Fire investigators work through investigation simulations.

Fire investigator’s from across Alberta gather for training in Strathcona county 1:08

“There’s a lot you can learn from a book, but there’s a lot more you can learn from a practical exercise,” McDermott said.

They also took in a live-burn demonstration that simulated a fatal fire started by a cigarette landing on a bed.

Within minutes, what started as a small flame on the mattress expanded to the entire bedroom.

Once the fire was doused, the investigators examined what was left of the bedroom — charred mattress springs and the remains of a cardboard cutout body.

A white burn pattern on the wall showed there had been a high heat concentration in the area, serving as a clue about where the blaze began.

“Typically, if you get a good solid V, the apex of the V will point to the area of origin,” Glen Hunker, a Strathcona County fire captain and FIAA vice-president.

The white burn pattern on the wall serves as an indicator of where the fire started. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The three-day course trains novice to seasoned investigators.

Peter Wiebe, fire chief in the northern Alberta hamlet of La Crête, said the training serves as a valuable refresher.

“There’s always updates. There’s new and improved different building codes,” he said. “Vehicles change as well, and … it’s an awesome experience to lean off of other people, like go off of their experiences.”

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