Special Report

Fire Investigation: How Is Arson Recognized?

June 13, 2022 by Mikel Rastegar in Special Report  
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Investigating Arson

There are four ways a fire can start in a building:

  1. accident
  2. action of nature
  3. negligence
  4. intentional

Intentionally and maliciously setting fire to a building is regarded as arson.

Arson occurs when a person willingly and knowingly burns a building with the intent to cause damage. However, arson is not only limited to buildings. You can also be charged with arson for burning down forest land or a boat.

The motivation to commit arson can be anything from a ploy to claim insurance money, revenge, covering up a crime, destroying evidence, or mental disorders such as pyromania.

All in all, no matter the motive for arson, it can have devastating effects that could lead to serious and fatal injuries. Plus, taking into account the nature of the crime, it can easy for evidence to be destroyed or overlooked, which makes it more difficult for law enforcement to recognize arson. Nonetheless, by concentrating on the details and conducting early analysis, detecting arson is not all-out impossible.

The Process of Arson Investigations

The fact is, the process of carrying out an arson investigation is not easy. The fire will usually scorch most of the evidence associated with the arson. Plus, the water and chemical form used to put out the fire, does not help the situation.

The most crucial part of arson investigations begins with the observations of the first respondents and the witnesses present at the suspected arson scene. Investigators heavily rely on these testimonies to help them establish any suspicious behavior that could point to arson.

Thus, first responders on the scene are expected to take notes on the smoke color, the condition of the property, and any other unusual behavior. The arson investigator will also look for other red flags that will help them establish whether it was arson or not.

Here are some of the most common signs of arson to look for:

  • Lack of accidental causes: One of the first steps of establishing arson is proving that a fire was not started accidentally. If an investigator eliminates accidental cause, they can confidently assume that the fire possibly started through arson.
  • The color of the smoke: When wood burns, it produces a yellow or red flame with grey or brown smoke. Thus, an unusual smoke color can indicate that an accelerant was used.
  • Evidence of usage of accelerants: Accelerants are a key sign that someone is trying to commit arson. Investigators can take debris from the crime scene and send them to forensic investigators that will help provide solid evidence of the presence of accelerants.
  • Multiple points of origin: This is usually a dead giveaway that the cause of the fire was arson. It can be a sign that incendiary devices were used since the arsonists likely started the fire in multiple locations hoping it would burn the same way and destroy the property faster.
  • Unidentifiable point of origin: Your fire needs to start from somewhere. Every fire needs a source of ignition. Thus, if the investigator cannot establish where the fire comes from, this can be a sign of foul play.
  • Damaged sprinkler or smoke alarm systems: Arson investigators will usually look at your smoke alarm systems, sprinklers, and even inoperative fire hydrants to help see if they were intentionally damaged to help prevent slowing down the fire.
  • Missing valuable or personal items: When carrying out their investigation, detectives will usually look to see if any valuable items, household items, or sentimental things are missing from the burnt property. The fact that these items are missing could serve as proof that the fire was planned, indicating arson.
  • Environmental modifications such as propped windows or unusual holes in the ceiling: Could be a sign that an individual tried to ensure that the fire they started completely consumed the structure of the building.

Finding the same individual at unrelated fire scenes: Some arsonists like to watch their fire burn. Thus, seeing the same person at several completely unrelated fire scenes can be a red flag for arson.

These are just a few signs that help investigators recognize whether the fire they are investigating was arson or not.

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