Tame the Flames

Cutting-edge management techniques for wildfire investigations.

January 18, 2013 Photo

The number and severity of wildfires in the United States have seen a dramatic increase over the past decade. With several years of below-average snowpack and moisture in many portions of the country along with record-setting warm temperatures, 2013 may generate yet another robust, massive wildfire season. In addition to the obvious spotlight on suppression activities, a focus on establishing the origin and cause of these wildfires has moved to center stage, serving to inform our agencies about potential causes and prevention.

According to year-end statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center, the U.S. incurred almost 67,315 reported wildfires that consumed more than 9.2 million acres. In a study completed by CoreLogic, Inc., more than 740,000 residences in the western United States with an estimated value of more than $136 billion are at a high or very high risk of substantial damage from wildfires.

Needless to say, insurance companies as well as individuals are taking very aggressive roles in the area of subrogation in order to recover losses. Effective management utilizing the latest techniques in wildfire investigation is a critical component in the preparation of claims and effective subrogation.

There is a natural tendency for everyone to be impressed and overwhelmed by the magnitude and violence of the fire itself and the degree of destruction that results from a catastrophic wildfire. Claims managers as well as investigators need to focus—at least initially—on the cause and not the extent of wildfires. Too much attention on the extent will often obscure and complicate the search for the origin and cause.

To the degree possible, it is advantageous that attorneys or claims managers be present in the field during at least some portion of the site investigation with their wildfire investigator. While many people in the industry understand the basic components of a structural fire investigation, the wildfire arena is often daunting for many.

Utilization of Technology

Several areas of technology that may prove useful as strategic options in the claims process include remote automated weather station (RAWS) data, fire modeling, and light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology. In addition, most late model GPS devices allow an investigator to walk the perimeter of the general and/or specific areas of origin and overlay them onto a mapping program such as Google Earth. A clear depiction of lateral, backing, and advancing indicators can then become an added layer of visual description that makes for a complete investigation incorporating objective analysis and empirical data.

Computer models have been developed for predicting growth and intensity of wildfires, known fuel sources, weather, and topographic information. Fire modeling can be an effective tool in demonstrating the speed and direction in which a fire spread. These are often very helpful in depicting any backing (against the wind and/or topography) activity of a wildfire, which may be overlooked by an inexperienced investigator.

Programs such as Behave, Behave Plus, and FARSITE enable users to add topographic factors, wind conditions, fuel packages, and fuel moisture, then factor them into the modeling data to explain behavior patterns. Similar to fire models for room fires, they are used for hypothesis testing, but they should not be counted on to provide absolute proof of how and where a particular wildfire was ignited.

A good example of how modeling can be used is when a wildfire is suspected to have started at point A as a result of two power lines slapping together, yet the heel (or rear) of the fire—where many believe the cause is always located—is several hundred feet away. A modeling program may show that the fire indeed could have backed against the wind to where the true heel of the wildfire was located.

The utilization of LIDAR technology is increasing in wildfire investigations. While the initial cost can be high, LIDAR proves to be an effective tool in accurately depicting every relevant dimension and measurement. It offers a 3-D approach with measurements between virtually unlimited amounts of reference points. For example, it can measure and depict visually the distance between powerline “B” and tree branch “C” and a fuse lying on the ground in location “D.”

RAWS data is a helpful tool in addition to weather data from commercial sites, such as Weather Underground. RAWS data is used by various governmental agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, to predict wildfire danger. Detailed data that can be examined includes fuel moistures in 1-, 10-, 100-, 1000-, and 10,000-hour fuels; Haines index (plume dominated fire potential); Keetch Byram drought index; flame length; spread component; ignition component; and the energy release component. All of this data is useful in looking at the viability of an ignition source and for producing a fire spread analysis.

Field Methodology

Utilization of a systematic methodology for field examination of a wildfire scene is imperative. This systematic methodology provides for the organizational and analytical process in the physical sciences to prove or disprove an investigator’s hypothesis as to cause. The use of this approach will often uncover factual data for analysis. Experienced wildfire investigators will use a variety of methods to determine the origin and cause of wildfires.

Once a scene has been determined to be safe for examination, the investigator should get an overview of the general area and the shape of the wildfire, particularly near the heel or base of the fire. A clockwise and counter-clockwise general search is conducted to identify general fire spread directions by examination of macro fire indicators and identification of the advancing fire area. Macro indicators can include items such as char patterns on power poles and trees; staining/sooting on rocks; protected areas of objects, such as rocks; cupping and beveling on tree branches; needle freeze on remaining branches; white ash deposits on large fuel packages; and spalling on rocks.

Unlike structure fires in which one generally examines the scene from the area of least damage to the area of most damage, in a wildland setting the opposite is generally true. It is often preferable to move from areas of the most damage to the areas of least damage because an advancing fire maintains a progression associated with the head or the front of the fire. Advancing patterns are marked in the field with red flagging. A backing fire maintains the progression associated with the heel or rear of the fire. Fire spread in this area is normally against the wind and/or down slope. Backing patterns are marked with blue flagging. A lateral fire will maintain a progression associated with the sides or flanks of the fire. It tends to spread outward in a 45- to 90-degree angle from the main direction of spread. Lateral patterns are marked with yellow flagging.

Based on macro indicators, an investigator should be able to determine a general area of origin that may vary in size from one-half to several acres. By carefully moving from advancing indicators and patterns to where they are more subtle, an investigator can then begin examining micro patterns, which may require the use of a magnifying glass. It is in these areas of lower intensity where the specific area of origin is located.

A specific area of origin is usually no smaller than five feet by five feet and may be larger, depending on indicators and other factors. Micro patterns are followed, usually during a sometimes-painstaking grid search of the specific area of origin, to a point of origin that is marked with a white flag. The point of origin is where the ignition source contacts the material that was initially ignited. During the site examination, the investigator not only needs to scientifically rule out many potential causes but also, to the extent possible, endeavor to find the exact source and prove that it caused the fire utilizing this scientific method.

Examining the Wildfire Claim

According to the Congressional Research Service, wildfires are getting more severe, with more acres and houses burned and more people at risk. Fires are increasing for many reasons, including excess biomass in forests, due to past logging and grazing and a century of fire suppression, combined with an expanding wildland-urban interface, more people and houses in and near the forests, climate fluctuations, exacerbating drought, and insect and disease problems. Generally speaking, I see one of two events in old growth/mature forests: they either burn or the bugs get them. In many portions of the West, both events are occurring, which has a synergistic effect on wildfires.

When dealing with a wildfire claim, I encourage insurance professionals, claims managers, and attorneys to work with an investigator who is specialized in expert wildfire investigation, as there are several specific differences in conducting an investigation of a wildland fire compared to a structural fire. There are also advantages of a team approach to handling wildfire claims and potential subrogation. Analysis of external factors such as multiple ignitions, first-responder actions, building code issues, weather influences, code compliance, and potential spoliation are important constituents that can be provided by a team of specialists.

While it is often important for the investigator of an origin and cause claim to get to the scene of a wildfire soon after its burn, there is also what is called a “cold case,” which may be several months old. With a cold case, there can be enough evidence still available that can help attorneys and adjusters to produce a substantial argument or defense. Pattern analysis and, in particular, macro indicators on some fuel types are still present for many months after a wildfire. Other factors that can be looked at in cold cases include reviewing weather records, searching for the presence of viable ignition sources, studying the moisture content in the fuel package, examining wind speeds and the direction it may have taken the fire, determining the relative humidity at the time of the ignition, and evaluating the activities of people attempting to suppress it. While they present certain challenges, cold case investigations can be conducted successfully and can turn out to be very beneficial to attorneys, insurance adjusters, and subrogation specialists.

It is vital for professionals in this field to gain an understanding of the latest information and cutting-edge technologies being used in today’s wildfire investigations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states, “During the January-December 2011 period, 8.7 million acres burned across the U.S. — the third most in the 12-year period of record.” As we know, this was exceeded in 2012. Large wildfire claims can involve hundreds if not thousands of parties, including multiple public agencies. Unlike most large-scale catastrophic events (hurricanes, tornados, hail, tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes), wildfires may not be natural occurrences. In fact, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, only about 10-20 percent of wildland fires are caused by lightning; the rest are human caused. Because of the vast scope, complexity, and exposure of large wildfires, an innovative team approach is necessary to properly handle these events.

During recent years, the dollars at risk on single events can be in the hundreds of millions. Public sector budget shortfalls are putting increased pressure on resources for fire mitigation and wildfire suppression. This has resulted in public agencies seeking suppression costs from at-fault parties on larger wildfires. Additionally, some have argued that fewer resources for battling and prevention have resulted in the increased number and magnitude of wildland fire occurrences.

I’ve often been asked if there is any gratification in my wildfire investigation career, and I have to say that some aspects are particularly rewarding. One is being able to pinpoint the area where the burn started, and even more importantly, the cause of the fire. That is especially significant for future reference in helping to educate all of us to keep from replicating these types of incidences. Hopefully, we can use our findings as tools of prevention to avoid future disasters.

Jeffrey Berino, CCFI, CFEI, BS, is a senior fire investigator with Pie Consulting and Engineering and a career deputy chief with the Lake Dillon Fire District in Colorado. He has 33 years of experience in investigating and educating insurance groups on wildfires, is frequently deployed to manage and combat large, campaign-style burns, and is court certified as an expert in wildfire investigations. He has been a CLM Fellow since 2012 and can be reached at jeff.berino@gmail.com.


Top States for Wildfires in 2012

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 67,000 wildfires burned more than 9.2 million acres of land in the U.S. in 2012. However, the two statistics don’t always show correlation. Here are the top 5 states for both number of wildfires and for acres burned last year.

Number of Wildfires

Texas     10,617

California    7,962

North Carolina     3,418

Georgia     3,325

South Dakota     2,546


Acres Burned

Idaho     1,538,092

Oregon     1,256,049

Montana     1,209,992

California     814,843

Nevada     613,126


About The Authors
Jeffrey Berino

Jeff Berino is a wildfire incident commander as well as a state and nationally certified wildfire investigator for AEI Corporation.  jeff@aeiengineers.com

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