After a wildfire burns swaths of land, someone has to investigate the clues left behind to determine the fire’s cause and, possibly, prevent another one.
A hands-on class offered near a northern Nevada airport teaches participants how to do it. Nearly 350 people, most of them in firefighting or law enforcement in Nevada and California, have taken the course since 2002, learning a variety of skills including evidence collection and interviewing techniques to interact with witnesses and suspects.
“If we know what causes them and how they are caused we can change human behavior if it is an accident,” said Terry Taylor, fire inspector and investigator for the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District and class coordinator. “If it is criminal, we can remove those people.”
The class in Minden allows land management agencies to get more people qualified to investigate wildfires using a method that produces evidence and other information that can withstand scrutiny in all jurisdictions, the Reno Gazette Journal reported . Thorough investigations can lead to criminal convictions and assist in recovering costs.
Instructors used various methods to start several fires during a recent training session near the Minden-Tahoe Airport and had the students investigate them. One instructor lit a few fireworks, placed them on the ground, and within seconds, a blaze began burning dry grass and brush. The fire extended more than 60 feet, reaching an abandoned runway, minutes later.
“It is one thing to look at a photograph,” said Daniel Cruz, a law enforcement officer for the Eldorado National Forest and one of the trainers who watched the test fires. “It is another to see the actual thing.”
Students and organizers also role-played interviews that are conducted during fire investigations.
The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest located in Nevada and a small portion of eastern California is the largest of its kind in the lower 48 states. One of its fire prevention technicians, Jen Diamond, said qualifying new investigators is crucial in her forest – and generally in Nevada.
Fires hundreds of miles apart can be burning at the same time during wildfire season.
“Nevada is always spread thin with people,” she said. “We are such a huge forest.”
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