FSI: When a fire scene becomes a crime scene

A $15,000 reward is being offered for any information on whoever started numerous wildfires still burning around Louisiana. Officials hope the reward, offered by the Louisiana Forestry Association, will help bring those who started the Hwy 113 Fire, the Lions Camp Road Fire, and the state’s largest wildfire on record, the Tiger Island Fire, to justice.

But how do officials even determine whether wildfires were intentionally or accidentally started? It’s not what TV would have you believe.

The biggest offender of incorrect investigation portrayals, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (and its numerous offshoots), has long frustrated detectives, forensic scientists, and other law enforcement personnel, but the frustration doesn’t stop at police shows. CAL FIRE, the agency portrayed on the popular show Fire Country, voiced its frustrations with the show’s inaccuracies from the moment the trailer dropped.

Fire Country largely skirts the actual evidence that helps  investigators determine the cause of fires. Because of that, fire investigators are often reduced to an antagonizer role in the show. The reality of fire investigation is much more important and in-depth than Fire Country makes it out to be, especially at a time when arsonists are setting some of the world’s most devastating wildland fires.

Tiger Island Fire 8-27-23

Tiger Island Fire on Saturday, Aug 27th. Extreme fire behavior was present over the weekend as the Southern Area Red Team took command of the incident.
Tiger Island Fire 08-27-2023 — Extreme fire behavior persisted over the weekend as the Southern Area Red Team took command of the incident. Inciweb photo.

Greece’s Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias announced that there have been 79 arrests of “arsonist scum” in connection to the hundreds of wildfires burning around the nation. A man in Canada is facing charges in connection to numerous forest fires that forced evacuations. Albania officials arrested two men caught on camera starting the area’s worst wildfire of the season. And the arsonist who lit the fatal Esperanza Fire in southern California in 2006 was sent to Death Row at San Quentin after a jury in 2009 found him guilty on 42 of 45 counts including 5 counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device to start fires.

But how does a fire scene turn into a crime scene? It all rests on investigators to determine the origin and the cause of the fire, according to an NWCG handbook.

“Accurate wildland fire origin and cause determination is an essential first step in a successful fire investigation,” the handbook reads. “Proper investigative procedures that occur during initial attack can more accurately pinpoint fire causes and preserve valuable evidence that might be destroyed by suppression activities. If a fire is human-caused, the protective measures described in the guide can preserve evidence that may lead to effective and fair administrative, civil, or criminal actions.”

Separating some of the wildland fire arson myths perpetuated in media like Fire Country is also a focus of the handbook. While fictional arsonists are depicted as highly sophisticated and using elaborate electronic devices to set numerous large fires in rapid succession, real-life arsonists are usually unskilled offenders who use matches or other simple devices to set small fires that may escalate in frequency and severity.

(Two classic wildfire arsonist stories — and investigations — are detailed in books by John Maclean:  The Esperanza Fire and River of Fire.)

Patterns often accompany arson fires, usually involving multiple fires geographically near to each other within a close timeframe. Most wildland arson fires are set at a location that can be accessed by motor vehicle and are not in rugged terrain. Arson can also be indicated by a lack of evidence, like when numerous fires with undetermined causes exceed normal fire history.

Despite the in-depth guide provided by NWCG, humans often can’t determine the cause of a fire on their own. Fortunately, arson dogs can often pick up where humans are lacking; State Farm actually has had an arson dog training program for about 30 years, and many states keep a trained accelerant-detection arson dog on staff.

Investigators of the Tiger Island Fire used one of the state’s five arson dogs to help determine the wildfire’s cause. The dogs are trained to detect 15 different types of ignitable liquids and identify whether they were used at the origin of fires.

You can learn more about arson dogs, specifically Pablo from the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal, [HERE].


ARSON: Man arrested on suspicion of starting 103-acre fire in Banning

An arson suspect investigators say may have started a wildland fire that burned over 100 acres Thursday night in southern California has been arrested; 45-year-old Andre Cox was taken into custody just after midnight in Highlands Springs in Banning. Cal Fire said investigators determined the fire was arson-caused.

The suspect will be charged with multiple counts of arson, along with possession of methamphetamine. He is being held on $60,000 bail.

He hasn’t been officially charged by the District Attorney’s office, according to a report by KESQ-TV, but is expected to be arraigned in court on Tuesday.

The Sunset Fire was reported at around 6:50 p.m. on Mesa Street and Gilman Street, and it was burning at a dangerous rate of spread; firefighters were able to contain the fire the next day.

The Desert Sun reported that Cal Fire did not say specifically how Cox is accused of setting the fire. He was arrested on suspicion of two felony counts, arson to forest land and arson during a declared emergency, and two misdemeanor drug counts, possession of meth and drug paraphernalia.

The fire started Thursday on the north side of Banning; by noon Friday, it was 103 acres and 90 percent contained. It did not reach any structures.

Anyone with information related to this incident should contact the Cal  Fire/Riverside County Fire Department’s arson hotline at (800)633-2836.


Five years ago in Colorado

From Wikipedia:

The Spring Creek Fire was a wildfire near Fort Garland and La Veta, Colorado in Costilla and Huerfano counties in southern Colorado. The fire burned 108,045 acres (43,724 ha) and was at the time the third-largest wildfire in Colorado history.

Spring Creek Fire, Colorado 2018

Origin and trial:

The Spring Creek Fire was started on Wednesday, June 27, 2018 near Fort Garland, Colorado and southwest of Parachute. Jesper Jørgensen, 52, a citizen of Denmark who was in the U.S. illegally (he had overstayed his visa), was arrested and charged with arson. He was camping in his truck and using a fire pit to grill food. Jørgensen claimed he was unaware of the open fire ban; he assumed the fire was fully extinguished, but was woken from a nap by the smell of smoke a few hours later. He initially attempted to extinguish it himself, and when he couldn’t stop it he called 911. The fire burned the western flank of the Sangre de Cristo foothills, on the south side of La Veta Pass. It was finally contained almost three months later on September 10 — after more than 140 structures were destroyed.

Jesper Jørgensen

Shortly after his arrest in June 2018, Jørgensen was declared mentally incompetent, which delayed his case; he was facing 349 counts of arson. According to the Colorado Sun, in the spring of 2022 after more than 2½ years, a judge dismissed criminal charges because Jørgensen was repeatedly assessed as unable to stand trial. He was diagnosed with delusional disorder.

Senior Judge Gregory Lyman had hoped that Jørgensen would be deported if the charges were dropped. However, he said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had no intention of doing that; after an unsuccessful attempt to have Jørgensen involuntarily medicated, Lyman said he believed the law required him to dismiss the case.

 ~ Thanks and a tip of the hardhat to Tatanka Hotshots (on facebook).

Genius arsonist sentenced in Missouri

A Missouri man was sentenced today to 12½ years in prison for arson on the Mark Twain National Forest and assault of a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer; U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh sentenced Lucas G. Henson, 37, of Iron County, Missouri, and ordered him to pay the USFS about $7,200 in suppression costs for the fires he set. According to a report by ky3.com Henson pleaded guilty in March to assaulting the LEO, along with arson and felon in possession of a firearm.

KSDK News reported that Henson last year set three fires across Butler and Wayne counties, which damaged seven or eight acres of National Forest Land. He also pointed a crossbow at a Forest Service officer.

U.S. Attorney Sayler Fleming of the Eastern District of Missouri said Henson was in the forest after he’d crashed a stolen truck while fleeing from the truck’s owner. He also faced multiple other charges including first-degree robbery, stealing a motor vehicle, and resisting arrest.

He is due in New Madrid County Circuit Court in July.

According to Fleming, Henson was out on bond after being charged with stealing and drug offenses, when he stole a Ford van on October 22, 2022 near Poplar Bluff. He abandoned the van when it ran out of gas. Later that day, he broke into a camper and stole items from it. The next day, he stole a Dodge pickup, then burglarized a home and stole a 9mm handgun. He also stole a crossbow from a workshop near that home.

When the truck’s owner found Henson, Henson pointed the 9mm at him and drove away. Law enforcement officers then joined the pursuit. Henson eventually crashed the truck on Mark Twain National Forest land, then started a fire and attempted to burn the handgun 😜 and the other stolen items before trying to escape into the forest.

Officers began tracking Henson with dogs, and when they approached he started his next fire. Henson started another fire when officers approached him again.

He later aimed a crossbow at a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer, as well as other officers, before taking off again. He was eventually caught near the Black River. Besides the USFS the case was investigated by the Butler County Sheriff’s Office, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, and the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Shelton prosecuted the case.

THANKS and a tip of the hardhat to Dale.

Arrest in last summer’s Oak Fire

A 71-year-old man was arrested and charged with starting the 2022 Oak Fire, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said yesterday. Edward Fredrick Wackerman of Mariposa, California, faces felony charges including aggravated arson for the fire that burned 19,244 acres and destroyed 127 residential structures and dozens of outbuildings. The Fresno Bee reported that the Oak Fire near Yosemite National Park ignited about 2 p.m. on July 22, 2022, in Midpines.

Edward Fredrick Wackerman, 71, accused of starting the 2020 Oak Fire in Mariposa County, SHERIFF'S OFFICE photo
Edward Fredrick Wackerman, 71, SHERIFF’S OFFICE photo

CAL FIRE law enforcement officers arrested Wackerman, according to the Mariposa Gazette, after an extensive interagency investigation, on multiple felony charges including suspicion of aggravated arson PC 451.5, arson that causes great bodily injury PC 451(a), and arson causing damage or destruction of inhabited structures PC 451(b).

The investigation was a collaborative effort among multiple agencies including CAL FIRE Law Enforcement, Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office, USFS Law Enforcement, NPS Law Enforcement, Madera County District Attorney Investigators, Mariposa County District Attorney’s Office, California Department of Justice Attorney General’s Office, and the FBI.

Oak Fire 2022

There were no reported fatalities caused by the Oak Fire, but Cal Fire said some were injured and treated, almost all for heat-related illness, and the fire burned for almost a month.

Oak Fire 2022

Officials initially said they were limited on what they could discuss in order to protect the investigation, but the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office said it planned a news conference for 10 a.m. Tuesday in front of the Mariposa County Courthouse; it will be streamed live on Facebook.

Volunteer firefighter in Pennsylvania charged with 60 felonies after lighting two dozen fires

YET ANOTHER TOILET PAPER ARSONIST:  An 18-year-old volunteer firefighter allegedly started 21 wildfires over the last couple months; ABC-27 News reported that Adam Ewing, of Three Springs, was arrested by the Bureau of Forestry for setting wildland fires in February and March.

On Saturday, Feb. 11, a series of wildfires started in southern Huntingdon County. Just before 2:30 p.m., crews were called out to a fire near Captain Jack’s Road. This fire burned about a half acre in dead leaves and brush before firefighters could control the flames. About 20 minutes later, crews were dispatched to another fire along Old Tannery Road in the Saltillo Borough. Another third of an acre was burned before firefighters were able to control it, according to a criminal affidavit.

On Feb. 14, investigators from the Bureau of Forestry visited the locations of the two fires to determine a cause. They concluded the fires had been maliciously lit with the intention to burn or spread.

another toilet paper arsonist
Adam Ewing, of Three Springs, was arrested by the Bureau of Forestry for setting 21 fires in Huntingdon County in February and March. Huntingdon County Prison photo

WTAJ-TV News reported that just before 2:30 p.m., crews were called out to a fire near Captain Jack’s Road; it burned .51 acres of dead leaves and brush before firefighters were able to extinguish the flames.

Investigators then learned that Ewing was the one who had called in the fire along Captain Jack’s Road. Later on Feb. 14, multiple fire crews were called out after two wildfires were reported near Hamman Road and Sugar Grove Road in Cromwell Township. Investigators from the Bureau of Forestry responded to the fires and were able to confirm again that these fires had been intentionally lit, according to the criminal complaint. The Three Springs Volunteer Fire Company’s Chief Chris Grace told the forestry investigators that Ewing — a volunteer firefighter — was the first to arrive at the fire station for the call. On Feb. 23 and 24, another 10 fires were reported — and also called arson by state Forestry. Police noted in the filed charges that at three of the fires, they found pieces of toilet paper with a rose pattern. Investigators went to Ewing’s home, where they confirmed that the toilet paper at the burn sites matched the rose pattern toilet paper at Ewing’s home. Ewing has yet to post his $500,000 bail. He’s facing 63 felony charges