12 March 2009

FSI sleuths to tackle Cape fires

Fire Scene Investigation ("FSI") is the latest tool being used in the Western Cape to help curb its devastating wildfires.

Wildfire Investigation is the latest tool being used in the Western Cape to help curb its devastating wildfires.

Fire Scene Investigation, known informally by its practictioners as "FSI", employs many of the same skills and techniques used in the more familiar "CSI", or Crime Scene Investigations.

Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) and the City of Cape Town (Environmental Resource Management and Fire & Rescue Services), are working together to draft a list of all fires that have occurred during the 2008/2009 summer fire season in the greater Cape Town area, including the devastating fires in Somerset West.

This list will then be prioritised to determine which fires need to be investigated.

A second working group focusing on investigating fires in the Cape Peninsula consists of VWS, South African Police Services, Table Mountain National Park, and City of Cape Town Fire & Rescue Services.

Investigations are already underway on some of the smaller fires in the Cape Peninsula, such as those at Red Hill.

Wildfire investigation has been used for several years by wildfire managers in the United States and Australia, says Rob Erasmus, wildfire investigator and General Manager of Volunteer Wildfire Services, but it is a relatively new tool in South Africa.

Erasmus explains that such investigations are part of a new, integrated approach to wildfire management, that includes firefighting and public awareness campaigns.

"The importance of investigating wildfires to gather critical information that will assist in the successful prosecution of offenders, has been realized," says Erasmus.

There are few qualified wildfire investigators in the country, and to this end, says Erasmus: "The VWS is running workshops for its members and other organizations, such as City of Cape Town, to train field staff in the procedures that need to be followed to protect crime scenes and to assist with investigations."

Subtle clues
Like any crime scene investigation, fire investigators rush to the scene (getting to the fire as soon as possible after it starts is far preferable to a "dead out" fire when wind and fire hoses may have muddled fragile evidence), interview witnesses and suspects, and rig up hazard tape to guard the most crucial part of the scene - the origin of the blaze - warding off members of the public and often also emergency personnel, who may unknowingly walk over sensitive evidence and destroy it.

Criminals sometimes attempt to use fire as a way to destroy property and simultaneously all evidence of their crime. But although fire destroys, it also leaves subtle clues on the landscape that a trained eye can pick up, for example leaves curling towards the heat, and ash coating the side of objects facing oncoming flames.

The area immediately around the point of origin of a fire is seldom completely destroyed, as the fire has not yet picked up "momentum" and does not burn at its fiercest here. Thus, items used to start fires the offending matchbox or firecracker is not, as some arsonists might suppose, reduced to ash, but is likely to be only partially burnt and, in the case of a cigarette for example, may be sufficiently intact to be collected for DNA testing.

(- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, with Rob Erasmus, General Manager VWS, for Health24, March 2009)


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