In a case for damages and injuries caused by a fire, it will be necessary for the plaintiff to establish the cause of the fire. For example, if the plaintiff alleges that defective wiring caused the fire, he or she will need to establish this and show that other possible causes can be eliminated. This can be a very difficult task because fires destroy evidence. A fire investigator will likely serve as a key witness for the plaintiff. If you have questions about fire investigation and how to determine a fire's cause, talk to an attorney who has experience handling fire litigation.
Determining how a fire started is often a difficult task for fire investigators because it is likely that most of the evidence at the source of the fire has been destroyed by the fire. If the fire took place at a home, office or other structure, the fire investigator will begin by inspecting the exterior of the burned building, looking at the doors and windows and whether there is any debris that could indicate an explosion. The investigator should also check gas and electric meters to see if utilities were hooked up and examine the electric panel.
When examining the interior of the building, the fire inspector will generally move from areas with less damage to the area with the most burning. The place with the deepest charring is usually where the fire started. Charring is deepest where the fire burned for the longest period of time and fire generally burns upward in a "V" pattern. It is possible for there to be more than one point of origin. Gas and electric appliances should be checked to see if control valves are "on" or "off" and whether there are any problems with gas lines or the electric connections.
It is important to not compromise the scene of the fire. The scene and any evidence and debris should be photographed where it is found. The evidence should be marked, documented and collected so the evidence can be preserved for later examination or use at a trial. Some severely charred items may be so delicate that testing or other lab procedures may destroy them. It is important to consider this possibility and whether testing is necessary or the evidence should be preserved for trial.
Key Fire-Related Terms
The following is a list of terms that fire investigators frequently use in their reports:
- A backdraft is an explosion that happens when oxygen enters a room full of hot gasses.
- Conduction is when heat energy passes through or within a material due to direct contact.
- Convection is the flow of gas or liquid from hot spaces to cool spaces.
- Flashover is a simultaneous ignition of everything in a space.
- The heat release rate (HRR) or rate of heat release (RHR) measures the rate at which heat energy is generated by burning. The HRR of various fuels and accelerants is unique and depends on chemistry, physical form and the availability of an oxidant.
- Radiation is when heat travels via electromagnetic waves, without objects or gasses carrying it along. Radiated heat can fan out in all directions without notice, until it meets an object.
- A rollover is when ignited fire gases or incompletely burned fuels rise to the top of a room and spread out to the sides, horizontally.
Talk to a Lawyer
Determining the cause of a fire can be a difficult task. If you bring a lawsuit to recover compensation for property damage or personal injuries sustained in a fire, your attorney will likely work with a fire investigator. To learn more about fire investigation, talk to an experienced attorney.
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