Weeks after a blaze is extinguished, how it started can remain a mystery as firefighters continue to investigate the fire’s origin and what factors played a role in its growth.
Laramie Fire Department Fire Prevention Division Chief Mark Doyle said when firefighters investigate how fires start, it is important for them to keep an open mind to different possibilities of the ignition source.
“It is like anything else — we have preconceived notions, even investigators do — so it is very important that we not get tunnel vision for a cause, once we pinpoint the area of origin,” Doyle said. “We have to keep our eyes open for different items that can cause fires, and different items that can substantiate or continue to burn. All of those things have to be in place for us to have a viable determination for an origin and cause.”
He said fire departments throughout the U.S., including the LFD, use guidelines set by a national fire agency, which incorporates scientific methods into investigations, to learn as much about the fire from a scientific standpoint.
“The National Fire Protection Agency, the NFPA, sets out a guideline … for how we investigate fires and the scientific method which is the foremost direction of (an investigation),” Doyle said. “We don’t only have to prove what started the fire, we have to prove what didn’t start the fire.”
Investigators also rely on interviewing individuals affected by the fire to learn more about the incident, he said.
Speaking with people who were directly affected by a blaze can provide new information which helps the investigation, Doyle said.
“I fought a fire in a trailer house one time that burned right on top of the furnace, so obviously that was the direction I started on when I started interviewing the occupant of the trailer,” he said. “I asked her how the furnace had been working and if everything was ok with that and she said yeah, and I said, ‘I think that is maybe where the fire started’ and she said, ‘Could it have been the candle that I have left burning beside the furnace in the bathroom?’ Yep, it sure could have been.”
The March 5 fire at Wade’s Mobile Manor is a recent example of how a potential source of a fire could change over time. Doyle said after the fire was extinguished, a preliminary cause of the fire was determined to be space heaters that caught one of the trailers on fire, which then spread to the other trailers. Since the preliminary hearing, investigators gained new information about conditions in the trailer, he said.
“The initial report was a propane heater had started the fire, we found out later that that might not (have) been the case, due to the fact that the propane bottles were allegedly empty at the time of the fire,” Doyle said. “There just happened that a propane heater (was) in the area, there was also some electric heaters so the initial report that it was a propane heater might have been premature.”
The cause of the fire at Wade’s Mobile Manor has not yet been determined but it is under investigation by the Wyoming Fire Marshall’s office.