Firefighters teach wildland investigation class

East Fork Fire & Paramedic Districts Capt. Terry Taylor, a fire investigator, stood watch on the perimeter of a black-spotted field north of Stephanie Way on Tuesday.

Before him, a smoky crew worked a small fire zone where flames had ravaged the sagebrush and other vegetation. But the fire was not started by lightning, as most wildland fires are; it was started by the firefighters themselves, as part of a wildland fire investigation class.

Firefighters from East Fork, Tahoe Douglas, Carson City, Lyon County, the Bureau of Land Management, the Nevada Division of Forestry and other agencies, all members of the Nevada chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators, helped manipulate and control the fires, six in all, each contained within a quarter-acre parcels.

"This is real-world training," said Taylor. "We'll burn more plots tomorrow, and the students will come out and look at the different plots and use techniques to figure out how the fires started."

While Taylor and others were setting the scene, the 16 students in the class were at Station No. 6 in Johnson Lane studying for the real thing.

"Later this week, some unlucky souls will be picked for a courtroom scenario," said Taylor.

He said the district attorney's office would be staging an arson case during which some students would be called upon to testify and undergo cross examination.

Although most wildland fires are started by lightning, Taylor said, it's still crucial to pinpoint the exact cause in case other factors were involved.

"The students have to look at how the vegetation burned," he said. "What the common ignition sources, both pre- and post-fire, left as evidence."

Taylor said fire investigators use the scientific method.

"That means it's the same approach to every incident, a fixed process to determine the cause of the fire," he said.

In cases of lighting, investigators will often find in the soil what Taylor described as a walnut, a dark piece of quartz and iron fused together by the heat. In cases of man-made fires, investigators will find other things.

"If it was caused by fireworks, you're going to find remains of fireworks," Taylor said.

The same goes for machinery, brush cutters or other machines that sometimes set off sparks.

"You're going to find evidence of where they were working," Taylor said. "In cases of spontaneous combustion, you're going to find a clinker, a solid piece of fused carbon."

Wildland fires can also be started along highways by vehicles with mechanical failures.

"You just have to learn the indicators of the vegetation and rocks," Taylor said. "We want the students to look backwards to where the fire actually started."

Taylor said fire investigations are usually collaborative efforts between several agencies. He mentioned a sheriff's detective taking the class.

"If we say arson, everyone gets together and works the case at that point," he said.

Taylor said the public also plays an important role.

"Most fires we deal with are called in," he said. "We always want people to know that if they're out and about and see something suspicious or someone being reckless with fire, they shouldn't hesitate to call it in. Everything called in is followed up on. I'd rather have someone be wrong after we check it out than have a fire going."


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