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The Investigation of the Fire through Photographs! IMPOSSIBLE?

By David M. Smith, Tucson, Arizona
Fire and Arson Investigator, Volume 41 – Number 1, (September 1990)

As a professional origin and cause consultant, I find myself, on occasion, in the position of attempting to interpret patterns contained in photographs to either attempt to determine the origin and cause of a fire loss or to determine the validity of another expert’s claim as to the origin and cause.

It should never be disputed that an on-scene investigation is, in fact, the best method for an origin or cause determination, however, often due to the nature of our legal system, we are not afforded the luxury of examining that scene as a lawsuit may be filed (depending on the jurisdiction) many months or years after the fire has occurred and the scene has been repaired or removed.

In my career, I’ve had many individuals, particularly those in the public sector, testify under oath that ‘no one has the capability or experience to determine the cause of a fire or the origin of a fire from a photograph.’ Further testimony often follows indicating that ‘only a person that is physically present at the scene and gets their hands dirty has the ability to determine the cause of a fire.’ As I indicated, I would always prefer to be present at the scene and to physically investigate that scene, however, the mere presence of a person at the scene does not provide them as through divine intervention, with a cause or the origin of a fire. Every ounce of that person’s ability to read and interpret fire patterns is necessary, whether at the scene or at the desk viewing the scene memorialized in photographs. We are all aware of the investigator comfortable with providing an opinion after arriving at the scene, but not leaving his vehicle or walking through the scene with his hands in his pockets kicking the ashes. The ability to interpret a photograph is an art acquired by necessity and requires total concentration, coupled with an ability to interpret patterns and a thorough knowledge of fire dynamics.

The purpose of a photograph being taken at a fire scene is to memorialize those items contained in that photograph for future use, whether that use be a report or litigation. I find it somewhat amusing that the individual most often yelling the longest and the loudest about an investigator or consultant ‘reading a fire scene’ from a photograph is the investigator that took that photograph to substantiate his opinion as to the origin and the cause of the fire. The same investigator that must testify that that photograph is an accurate representation of the scene at the time of his examination and therefore, he relies upon that photograph to demonstrate that scene to his client, the jury or a judge, it does seem somewhat difficult to have it both ways.

Although we may wish otherwise, fire investigation at this juncture is an art and not an exact science, which through its very nature, is subject to interpretation based on that individual investigator or consultant’s background, education and experience. Who actually is more apt to arrive at the true origin and cause of a fire? An inexperienced investigator visiting the scene or a seasoned investigator interpreting photographs of that scene.

Nothing will ever take the place of a trained investigator being at a fire scene and a trained investigator at a fire scene always holds an advantage over a similarly trained investigator only being provided reports and photographs relative to that fire scene. However, as I have stated, the attendance at a fire scene is not always possible and therefore, perhaps we should re-evaluate our somewhat simplistic attitude that anyone willing to express an opinion as to the origin and cause of the fire based on reports and photographs is also willing to sell their soul. Integrity and honesty is not based on a visit to a fire scene and whether we evaluate a scene in person or by photograph, we must always remember that we are truth seekers and not case makers.

David M. Smith is the immediate Past President of the IAAI and a Certified Fire Investigator practicing throughout the United States.