Fire Scene Reconstruction and Investigation

The third installment in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries—A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH—releases next month. As part of that event, we want to spend the next few weeks talking about some of the science that went into the book—both fire investigation and murder investigation following a fire.

During a fire, the first concern is to rescue any people or pets who might be in danger, followed by protection of that structure and adjacent structures. But once the fire is out and has cooled, the primary concern shifts to determining the cause of the blaze.

Depending on the jurisdiction, this investigation may be carried out by a fire marshall with arrest powers, or local police forces may be called in to assist. In Massachusetts, the location of the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, the state Fire Marshal doesn’t actually investigate; instead, Massachusetts State Police troopers with full investigative powers are assigned to the Fire Investigation Unit. In A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH, we introduce a new character to the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries—Trooper Brianna ‘Bree’ Gilson from the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal’s Office. A former Salem fire fighter, Bree has crossed over to the police side of fire investigation, training to become a state trooper with the intent of joining the Fire Marshal’s Office. Because of her past experiences as a fire fighter, Bree proves to be a significant asset to Matt, Leigh, and the team in solving two fire-related deaths.

If any victims are found during the course of the investigation, the site is immediately considered a crime scene until investigators can determine the victim’s cause of death. In Massachusetts—with the exceptions of Boston, Springfield and Worcester which all have their own local homicide departments—officers from the Massachusetts State Police Detective Units are called in investigate all fire deaths.

The main difference between homicide and fire reconstructions is the destruction of the scene during a fire, compounded by the action of the fire fighters. Not only have multiple people stormed through the detective’s homicide scene, but items have been displaced by water (200 psi water streams pack a significant punch), melted by heat, and possibily exposed to weathering by elements such as ice and snow after the destruction of the surrounding building. It’s often a signficant challenge for both the homicide investigators and the fire marshal to determine what happened on site before the fire took hold.

Leaving aside potential deaths, what are the questions and challenges faced by the fire marshal? There are several main questions that must be answered in any fire investigation:

  1. What is the point of origin of the fire?
  2. What was the cause of the fire?
  3. Was the fire accidental or intentional?
  4. What accelerants might have contributed to the fire and its subsequent growth?
  5. Who or what was responsible for the fire?
  6. Were any crimes commited concurrent to the fire i.e. breaking and entering, burglary, or murder?

If arson is suspected, three things must be proved:

  1. Physical destruction is a result of the fire.
  2. The fire was started deliberately.
  3. There was specific intent to start the fire—murder, monetary gain etc.

In the case of an associated death, several additional questions must be answered:

  1. What caused the death?
  2. What links the two occurences?

A death associated with a fire is not necessarily homicide; perhaps someone had a heart attack while cooking dinner and a subsequent stove fire burned down the house. But the possibility that a fire might have been set to destroy evidence and mask the identity of a victim must always be considered.

Next week, we’ll delve more deeply into fire investigation and explain how investigators determine the point of origin and how the fire started.

A reminder to our readers that A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH will release April 18th and be available shortly thereafter. This is the third installment in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, following DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, and the e-novella, NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL.

If you want a chance to read our newest release weeks before it's available in stores, this is one of your last chances to win a free, signed ARC. Enter to win 1 of 3 copies in the Goodreads giveaway here!