What Is Fire Origin & Cause?

Fire cause & origin determination is a branch of what we call causation forensics, and is the applied science of finding out where, how, and why a fire has occurred. It also very often involves an analysis of a fire's effects and damages on property and life. By carefully observing - and accurately interpreting - smoke, heat, and fire effects on combustibles and other materials like metals, a fire cause specialist is guided to what is known as the "area of origin" of a fire.


Within this area the fire began, and the specialist then sorts through it in search of potential ignition sources, examining each closely. Once all the potential ignition sources are found, the weeding out process begins and - as the others are ruled out - an ignition source which best fits the fire's circumstances is eventually identified as the most likely cause of the fire. This methodology applies to just about any fire scene, whether it be in a car, a boat, a house, or a factory.


Isn't determining a cause the fire department's job?

The fire department has a lot of responsibilities, and determining a general fire cause is usually one of them. But although firefighters are trained in fighting fires, few fire departments have the resources for training their personnel in chemistry, electricity, and other technical aspects of fire causation. In addition, a legal line is often drawn between fire causes of criminal interest and of civil interest, which limits the scope of their investigations.


If the fire was intentional, the public fire official must prove a crime was committed, but only rarely are criminal charges actually filed - 84% of arson cases typically remain unsolved on a yearly basis.


Who else investigate fires?

Fire experts also include private specialists who determine the origin and cause of fires. These forensic specialists are usually independent contractors with an engineering or engineering-related background who analyze fires or a fire's affects for insurance companies, attorneys, private individuals and companies. Their origin and cause determinations are typically conducted with the cooperation of the local fire department and municipal investigators. The independent fire investigator's focus is technical in nature and more detail-oriented, and is especially useful for potential "subrogation" cases and fires of a technical nature (electrical failures, for example).


What's a "causation forensic specialist" or "forensic fire expert"?

Though most people are familiar with criminal forensics, just about any type of occupation can become a "forensic" one. There are forensic pathologists, forensic biologists, even forensic accountants. "Forensics" deals with arguing your case - whatever your expertise may be - in court. Causation forensic specialists are usually technically trained in physical sciences, having also become qualified through further experience and training to argue about the physical causes of fires and accidents. In causation forensics, experience really does matter - and Jeff Williams of Fire & Accident Causation Technical Services (FACTS) of Florida has focused on this field full-time since 1981.


What's a "subrogation"?

If an appliance fails and causes a fire, or if a repairman does shoddy work and a fire results, insurance companies will occasionally demand reparation for the ensuing damages in an action known as subrogation, and they'll typically use an independent forensic specialist's report to convince the other insurance company that their insured was responsible, in a specific way, for the fire.


If a hair dryer catches fire, for example, the forensic fire specialist must determine not only that the dryer caused the fire, but he must also be able to explain the technical details of how the hair dryer failed and why. Based on the report, the company which insures the hair dryer manufacturer will then be asked by the homeowner's insurance company to pay for the damages. The manufacturer's insurance company will retain its own technical expert to review the other's report and evidence; the case is then settled or argued later in court.


What about intentionally-set (arson) fires?

After an intentionally-set fire (the crime of arson) is investigated by the fire department or fire marshal, the case may or may not get the support of the district or state attorney, depending on the strength of the evidence. If it does go to criminal trial, the evidence presented to a jury must be able to overcome the "reasonable doubt" standard which applies to innocence or guilt.


The conviction rate nationwide for arson-related crimes remains consistently around 2%. In contrast, occasionally a person may be wrongly accused, and in their situation an independent fire cause specialist's technical findings may be crucial for their defense.


In fires set for insurance money, there's an additional barrier for arsonists. If a fire is intentionally-set but no charges are filed or the insured otherwise escapes criminal prosecution, independent fire cause specialists often provide the insurance company with an extra safety net by determining the specifics of how the fire was started.


Based on the specialist's technical report and the background information their own internal SIU (Special Investigations Unit) or private investigators provide, an insurance company may refuse to pay the insured for the losses resulting from the fire. In such a case, though, a civil trial can result and the insurance company must prove that it had reason to believe that the fire was intentionally-set for insurance fraud. Independent fire causation specialists are often involved on both sides in these cases to argue their positions.ull screen intro with color background.

Additional Reading: