A Look Into Structure Fire Incendiary Investigations
May 4, 2022
It can be challenging to differentiate between an incendiary fire and arson because the differences are subtle. Incendiary fire speaks to willfulness relating to the criminal ignition of property. Arson refers to the criminal act of deliberately setting fire to property or recklessly starting a fire or explosion. The incendiary is the causal factor, whereas arson is more related to the charge.
We look at whether the fire was deliberately ignited during incendiary fire investigations. We consider whether the person knew that the fire should not be ignited. This means such cases rely strongly on Mens Rea, meaning intent or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime.
When investigating incendiary fires, a fire scene’s approach must be unbiased. We approach it with a systematic and methodical approach and a process of elimination. Therefore, we can only render our conclusion once we’ve gathered all facts relating to the case.
While knowing the motive may be an added advantage, it’s beyond the scope of an investigator. The motive is crucial only to the legal aspects of the investigation. These are amongst the most common motives in incendiary fire claims:
- Mental health
- Serial arsonists
Incendiary fire indicators
If a home is vacant, it may provide an opportunity for ignition. We may also look at the conditions of doors, windows, and the property if it appears abandoned. Indicators range from multiple fires, unusual fuel load or configuration, irregular fire patterns, burn injuries, lack of expected fuel load, and incendiary devices to lack of ignition sources.
During investigations, it’s also essential to look for disarmed alarm and sprinkler systems that may have been tampered with.
Multiple fire indicators
- Fires with no apparent connection – Multiple areas of origin can be described as two simultaneously burning fires that do not correlate. For example, you would have one in the basement and another on the second floor. Taking a systematic and unbiased approach to the investigation allows us to determine the area of origin and how the fire may have spread from the basement to the second floor. This process eliminates radiation convection, conduction, or even suppression as a cause. Sometimes, a burning piece of combustible material could be pushed into another room, resulting in a fire spread.
- Fire spread is not natural – Investigators must determine that the fire spread is not a result of the natural progression of the fire.
Because fires that occurred at different times naturally won’t correlate, it’s crucial to get the fire history of the system from the Fire Department. The site of a previous fire must not be confused with a new one. For example, if a fire occurred in the home, and some of the damage was not fixed, the earlier site could be mistaken for the current one. Therefore, it is incumbent on the investigating team to obtain a fire history of the structure.
Irregular fire patterns
Figure 1: An example of an irregular fire pattern.
When at a scene, an investigator must look at irregular fire patterns. Look for anything that suggests that the fire came from other areas. It’s equally important to look for debris that indicates that there could have been an extension cord or anything else that could have been a competent and potential ignition source.
Combustible fuels or ignitable liquids are often used to spread the fire. These may leave distinctive patterns on horizontal surfaces. It’s vital to determine whether these patterns are not from other mechanisms such as electrical failures, smoking, candles, stovetops, spontaneous combustion, or lightning.
Materials that can be used in incendiary fires
- Ignitable liquids
While several other combustibles exist, these four remain the most common. In addition, some homeowners use toilet paper or paper towels as ignition materials for incendiary fires. However, it is not the materials that constitute a fire pattern but how they are used.
Figure 2: A bedroom where a fire occurred.
Figure 2 shows a protected area surrounded by surface heat damage stains. There is another protected area on the bed. The secure area on the floor continues down the stairs. In this case, a suspect poured gasoline on the surface, and the fire died due to a lack of ventilation. When we look at irregular fire patterns such as these, we need to pay attention to the protected areas because they’ll often tell us what material is lying there.
Lack of expected fuel load
When visible damage isn’t consistent with the fuel load, it always warrants further investigation. In cases where a protected area is seen, the police may remove the material. The absence of the fuel itself is not enough to classify a fire as incendiary. Sometimes there is an area in a corridor, stairway, or hallway that does not have as much fuel load. But this area will have a burn pattern that needs to be investigated further to confirm that the cause of the fire is not spontaneous combustion, a lit cigarette, or another product that may have oxidized.
Some investigators habitually only look at the burn areas and neglect the debris. It’s essential to search the debris because you may find significant pieces of physical evidence for further analysis.
It’s equally critical to examine the burn area in totality. If you’ve collected enough physical evidence for samples, never leave part of the burn area unexamined. For example, going to scrape the floor in the area could reveal crucial pieces of evidence. Look in areas such as closets, crawl spaces, and attics.
Unusual fuel load or configuration
An arsonist may move furniture and combustibles closer to speed up the fire spread. However, this makes it easier to see that there are no other potential and competent ignition sources for the area. This indicator helps us build our facts during investigations. However, we must be careful not to assume unusual fuel loads are related to a deliberately set fire. For example, people may have had a party before the fire, resulting in a need for a reconfiguration of furniture. To rule this out, investigators look for potential ignition sources in the area.
Before going into any scenes, one must get as much information as possible from the insured. When taking a statement from the insured, ask them to write where the furniture is or where it should be on a piece of paper. In addition, you may wish to have them indicate if there are any extension cords or other possible electrical ignition sources. This process of elimination can lead to a more efficient fact-finding mission.
Information about the furniture materials and the fuel type must also be obtained when collecting the insured’s statement.
People that are involved in setting fires can often get injured. Those injuries require analysis to ensure that they are consistent with the fire. For instance, if the exposure to heat is through radiation, chemical, or electrical burns, the injuries should match the insured’s statement.
In the process of elimination, you must attempt to determine the type of burn injury. For example, the extent and type of burn injury sustained from boiling liquids or cooking may differ considerably from one incurred in a drug lab. These are crucial considerations when analyzing body injuries.
If there are bodily injuries and somebody is trying to delay the fire, you’ll probably have incendiary devices.
When incendiary devices are seized, it’s vital to ensure proper continuity and analysis. Part of the investigation and analysis process is also ensuring that all vested parties are invited to attend.
There’s a wide range of mechanisms for incendiary devices, and almost any appliance or heat-producing device can be used. These devices include candles, oil lamps, Molotov cocktails, matches, cigarettes, and stovetops.
Remains of incendiary devices can often be found on the scene, making it easy to send them for lab examination. They can also be found in the debris. Upon obtaining the remains of incendiary devices, they must be properly bagged and sealed.
Some incendiary devices are constructed as delay devices to allow the fire setter time to leave the scene. If an explosive device is found in the background, it must not be removed or touched, as it may have a timer. Not touching the device also avoids contamination or spoliation. Spoliation can also be prevented through security.
The presence of incendiary devices does not always mean foul play. For example, the presence of ignitable liquids may be normal in a typical residential garage.
Methodology and Considerations
The two aspects of investigative processes remain the same in commercial and residential claims. Therefore, we look at fire scenes with no preconceived notions to ensure that we provide an unbiased report.
Sometimes, emergency services will be required at the scene, delaying the forensic investigator’s access. During these delays, the investigator must ask the contractor to secure the scene to ensure that it’s not contaminated and that the scene is well-documented. Consider all your hypotheses, the process of elimination, and the patterns offered.
Figure 3: A burnt rubber carpet with an irregular pattern.
Burn patterns are often the key to discovering the cause of a fire. Examining the pattern and its surroundings can provide much-needed physical evidence. In addition, this thorough examination could help confirm if other objects could have dropped in the area of origin.
Figure 4: An example of a forced entry indicator.
In a thorough process of elimination, you must also look at the possibility of forced entry. In the case shown in figure 4, screws were found on the floor, and the door had been replaced. At first glance, you would not tell that the garage door at the back had been removed.
As an investigator, key questions and considerations in forced entry claims include:
- The presence of alarm systems
- Video surveillance in and around the property
- Physical evidence
- Items removed or targeted
- Financial pressures resulting from COVID-19 may provide motive and rationalization for fraud.
- However, examinations must remain wholly unbiased and methodical.
- When in doubt, contact an expert.
Case study: Commercial fire
Figure 5: The commercial building during the fire.
The building, in this case, operated as a pork and meat plant. It also had another tenant who ran a slaughterhouse for pigs and cattle. In addition, the plant was both CFIA and USDA approved.
Figure 6: The location of the first fire.
An employee discovered a fire outside a washroom in the basement at 3:50 am. The fire department attended and extinguished the small fire. They did not raise any concerns about how a fire could start in this location.
Figure 7: The location of the second fire.
After the extinguishment of the first fire, the fire department left. Staff was allowed to enter the building when within approximately 15 minutes, a second alarm was raised in a cooler room on the north side of the plant.
The fire department reattended, but the fire had taken hold as cork, and foam insulation was in the walls. The fire took at least 24 hours to get under control. It was subsequently determined that both fires were entirely separate and deliberately set.
Figure 8: The detached gas line.
During the investigation, a gas line was found disconnected in the boiler room, which was away from both areas of the fire.
Figure 9: The meat processing area after the fire.
All the stock was damaged, and the roof of the plant collapsed due to the second fire.
Figure 10: The roof after the fire.
Challenges at the scene
- Ontario Fire Marshal and police investigation.
- CFIA involvement with demands for stock to be removed.
- Toronto Health Department involvement.
- Residents had to be evacuated.
- The building suffered severe structural damage.
- The building department required emergency shorting and fencing.
- Police designated the site as a crime scene on day 3.
- The insured refused to sign the non-Waiver agreement.
- The insured then retained counsel and appointed an Origin and Cause engineer.
- The insured reneged on an agreement to pay for the removal of meat.
- All agencies were looking to pressure insurers to pick up the cost of various work that had to be performed, including stock removal, emergency shoring, and fencing.
- There was a mortgage company involved.
- On day 5, the OFM agreed to outline their findings to the insurer’s engineer and walked the engineer through the scene.
- The insured insisted on being present during the walkthrough. However, the OFM refused because there was an active police investigation, and then they released the building to the owner.
Unique Coverage issues
Three separate companies were named on the insurance policy, namely:
- Landlord-owned buildings
- Operating tenant
- Tenant (the slaughterhouse)
We also had a business interruption claim. The mortgage company sought payment under the Mortgage clause. In addition, the operating tenant was subsidized and placed in receivership.
The tenant ultimately retained a public adjuster and filed for proof of loss for approximately $9.6 million. There was a claim for both building and equipment damage. Moreover, the receiver filed a lawsuit for $3.2 million that included various components, such as stock, tenant improvements, business interruption, ordinary payroll, and professional fees. The landlord’s lawyer later claimed for equipment and business interruption.
- Interview the insured at the first opportunity. The insured was interviewed on day one in this case. The three-hour interview secured some details on the loss. This was the only opportunity we got to speak to the insured. When the police designated the scene as a crime scene, they did not provide details on why they did that. The insured retained legal counsel, and we never got the opportunity to interview them or secure formal statements over the next eight years, which was the life of the fire.
After the first and only interview, we had no access to the insured as all the flow of information was through solicitors. So, if we hadn’t interviewed the insured early on, we would never have gotten any evidence from them. Adjusters and investigators also need to speak to people at the scene. We talked to a mortgage company representative who attended and obtained valuable documents, such as a pre-loss appraisal report and pre-loss photographs. We secured this with the insured’s permission. Had we waited, we would have never received this permission from the legal counsel involved.
- Retain the good investigation team and counsel early on. It’s essential to have the right people in place. In this case, we retained security to protect the scene and keep a proper log of all persons entering and accessing the site while investigating. In addition, we had engineers identify the structural damage and define the type of building that existed before the fire. This information helped us price what it would cost to repair or rebuild.
We retained a roofing consultant to comment on prior deterioration and poor maintenance. We included an environmental expert in determining what hazards existed at the site. We also had an equipment expert tell us whether the equipment could be lubricated to avoid deterioration. Moreover, we retained a cleaning company and conducted various tests in the building to determine the best cleaning method. Then, we retained accountants to verify the inventory and stock.
- Tread very lightly on suspected arson cases. Insurers face a lot of pressure from the insured and the authorities to pay for things that require repairs. You’ll have to resist this pressure while the investigation is ongoing.
It’s tough to explain to non-insurance people why the insurer doesn’t want to pay for the cost of emergency work acquired at the site. On day 3 of this case, the adjuster was told that the CFIA had condemned the meat in the building. They were subsequently exposed to return with a plan to remove around 500 carcasses that weighed 700 pounds from a structurally damaged building. After producing this plan, they brokered a deal between the insured and a rendering plant they had contacted, where the insured agreed to pay for removing the contaminated meats.
We then arranged for accountants to count meat before loading it onto trucks. However, as we had ten trucks lined up outside the following day, the insured said he wasn’t paying for it. Instead, the bank had appointed a receiver who froze the insured’s assets overnight.
It’s essential to remember that an insurance policy is a legal contract. So, you can use statutory conditions to your advantage. They can back you up when you are faced with a lot of pressure from the insured or the authorities to pay for emergency work that needs to be done. Use these conditions to explain why insurers cannot commit to coverage until the investigation is complete.
Examples of statutory conditions are number 6, which details requirements the insured needs to follow after a loss. Statutory condition 7 details that coverage is invalidated if there’s fraud and action by the insured or persons acting on their behalf.
Statutory condition 10 details the insurer’s rights to enter and control the site to conduct an investigation. That condition also states that insurers cannot abandon salvage. Even so, we would usually still get written authorization from the insured to attend the site. Statutory condition 11 deals with any disputes. So, if you get into a disagreement on quantum, you can use that condition to resolve the dispute.
Contact Origin and Cause for Structure Fire Incendiary Investigation Today!