Computer fire models used in court cases

In a recent court case, a judge ruled that computer fire models for structure fires were not admissible in court — not only for that particular case, but for any court case. We are not aware of any judge throwing out computer model evidence in wildland fire cases.

Here is an excerpt from the last paragraph of the judge’s ruling:

Bearing in mind that the court’s role as gatekeeper is “counting scientists,” the court finds that defendant did not present sufficient evidence to establish that there is a consensus in the fire investigation community that computer fire modeling is generally accepted as reliable. “The long-recognized rule of Frye v. United States (supra) is that expert testimony based on scientific procedures is admissible but only after a principle or procedure has ‘gained general acceptance’ in its specified field” (People v. Wesley, 83 NY2d at 422). Here the specified field is fire investigation. The issue before the trier of fact in this particular lawsuit involves when and how the fire started. Defendant failed to meet its burden of proving that its expert’s use of computer fire modeling was generally accepted in the fire investigation community.

We would appreciate hearing from Wildfire Today readers who can cite specific examples where wildland fire computer models were introduced as evidence in court cases, and were either accepted or ruled inadmissible.

Here is the opinion of Stephen Olenic of Combustion Science & Engineering, Inc., about the July 2, 2010 court ruling, It is from a Google Group post:

…There are several aspects with which I disagree. First, I would not characterize NIST’s use of FDS in the WTC investigations as simply “illustrative”. Secondly, NFPA 921, the guide for fire and explosion investigations, which is created by a consensus group of fire investigative personnel and interested parties and is an ANSI standard, states that computer modeling “can be used to test hypotheses regarding fire origin and fire development”. The fact that the defendant’s expert, Mr. West, has indicated that he, at his time at the New York Fire Department and NYC Bureau of Fire Investigation, did not use fire modeling to aid in fire investigation should hardly be considered an endorsement from the rest of the fire investigation community that it does not support its use.

Fire dynamics are governed by the laws of science. If FDS and other computer fire models are appropriate for design, it is appropriate for use in fire investigation and reconstruction. Regardless of whether it’s pre- or post-fire, the fire dynamics are the same. Of course, it is incumbent on the user to properly apply the model and use proper inputs etc. I guess my overall problem with the opinion is that instead of simply excluding this particular expert and the use of computer fire modeling in this particular case (correctly or incorrectly), the judge took the stance that computer fire modeling is inappropriate for fire investigation and reconstruction as a whole. I couldn’t disagree more.

Thanks Chuck

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

One thought on “Computer fire models used in court cases”

  1. Bill;

    I remember taking the “old” S-390 back in the 1980’s and being taught in the course that the Rothermel Fire Spread Model could not be used in court to determine point of origin of a wildland fire. That model was designed to be used in the field, and it is rather coarse in its design and application, but it was designed that way. It has served us well.As a long-time wildland fire investigator, I have never heard of the Rothermel Fire Spread model used in a court of law to determing point of origin of a wildland fire. The model in question before the court is dynamic fire spread model used for cause determination in structures and confined space, and is the subject of a two week course at the National Fire Academy. Very interesting.


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