Tame the Flame: Wildfire Insight

I’m frequently asked if there is any gratification in my wildfire investigation career, and I have to say that there are several particularly rewarding aspects about my job. For one, being able to pinpoint the exact area where a fire originated, and more importantly, determining the cause of a fire is extremely fulfilling. Secondly, applying intel gained from my investigations towards the prevention of future wildfires is exceptionally gratifying.

Determining the cause, and not so much the extent, of wildfires has become the cornerstone of wildfire investigation. Oftentimes too much attention on the extent of the fire obscures and complicates the search for the origin and cause. And with the number and severity of wildfires in the United States exponentially increasing, the determination of cause goes hand-in-hand with using modern technology to gather critical data.

I recently discussed wildfire technology tools at length in an article I authored for Claims Management Magazine titled Tame the Flames – Cutting Edge Management Techniques for Wildfire Investigations.

Some of the cutting-edge technological tools that I mention include:

  • Remote automated weather station (RAWS) data can be used to predict wildfire danger
  • Computer Fire Modeling to demonstrate the speed and direction in which a fire can spread
  • Programs such as Behave, Behave Plus, and FARSITE enable users to add topographic factors, wind conditions, fuel packages, and fuel moisture, then factor them into the modeling data to explain behavior patterns
  • Light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology
  • GPS devices allow an investigator to walk the perimeter of the general area(s) of origin and overlay them onto a mapping program such as Google Earth.
  • LIDAR technology offers a 3-D approach to depict critical dimensions and measurements.

Another crucial aspect in wildfire investigation is the utilization of systematic field methodology to gather important data. In particular, field examination is critical for the organizational and analytical process in the physical sciences to prove or disprove an investigator’s hypothesis as to cause. Once a scene has been determined to be safe for examination, the investigator should get an overview of the general area and the shape of the wildfire, particularly near the heel or base of the fire. A clockwise and counter-clockwise general search is conducted to identify general fire spread directions by examination of macro fire indicators and identification of the advancing fire area. Unlike structure fires, wildfire investigation should move from areas of the most damage to the areas of least damage because an advancing fire maintains a progression associated with the head or the front of the fire. A specific area of origin is usually no smaller than five feet by five feet. During site examination, the investigator not only needs to scientifically rule out many potential causes but also locate the exact source and prove that it caused the fire.

Wildfire Claim Examination Tips:

  • Retain a specialized wildfire investigator; there are vast differences in conducting a wildland fire investigation compared to a structural fire.
  • Utilize a team approach; analysis of external factors such as multiple ignitions, first-responder actions, building code issues, weather influences, code compliance, and potential spoliation are important constituents that can be provided by a team of specialists.
  • Value of a “cold case.” A cold case may be several months old but there can still be enough evidence available to help attorneys and adjusters produce a substantial argument or defense. Pattern analysis and macro indicators on some fuel types can be present for several months after a wildfire.

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