Wildland Fire Investigations on the Bridger-Teton National Forest

Most of the law enforcement activities of the U.S. Forest Service are authorized under titles 16, 18, and 21 of the U.S.  Code. Law Enforcement and Investigations (LEI) within the Forest Service is a Washington Office entity responsible for investigating offenses against the United States, including crimes affecting, or occurring within the National Forest System,-which includes 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands covering approximately 192 million acres.  

Blackened forest with origin of fire taped off

Yellow tape encircles the origin site of a wildfire with blue and red “pin flags” marking specific locations of indicators or evidence for fire investigators. (USDA photo by Lathan Sidebottom)

Law enforcement officers and special agents conduct criminal and civil investigations and enforcement actions on the 3.4 million acre Bridger-Teton National Forest, pertaining to wildlife crimes, fires, timber and property theft,  destruction of natural resources, illegal occupancy of National Forest System lands, off-highway vehicle regulations, drug crimes and threats and assaults against Forest Service employees.  

LEI, along with qualified investigators within the fire organization, are responsible for investigations on every suspected human caused fire on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.  Fire investigations are conducted in accordance with agency policy, handbooks, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) guidance and best practices outlined in publications used nationwide. The Forest Service has sole, or shared jurisdiction for wildland fire investigation on all incidents originating on, spreading to, or threatening National Forest System Lands.

LEI fills a variety of rolls on emerging fires, as well as campaign incidents. In addition to frequently detecting fire threats, such as abandoned and escaped campfires, officers and agents perform traffic control, assist with evacuations and coordinate with outside law enforcement agencies. LEI personnel often adopt origin and cause investigations performed by fire personnel, for further civil and criminal investigation. On large incidents, officers and agents may be assigned to large fire investigation teams, as well as security around incident base camps, or operational fire areas. 

Law enforcement officers are often one of the first qualified wildland fire investigators at the scene. They work cooperatively with our firefighters to identify suspects, evidence, and potential origin areas. Investigations are carried out utilizing a scientific methodology, combining process of elimination, evidentiary processes, interviews, weather data and forensics to determine the cause. 

Documentation is key to a successful fire investigation. It starts with historical fire records, as well as weather and climate data leading up to the ignition. The first 911 call of a given incident, observations from first responders and accurate chronology of events are critical to success. Officers and agents often invest months and sometimes years in larger cases, pursuing criminal charges, and millions of dollars in cost recovery. 

When all the pieces come together, many cases result in collection of suppression and resource damage costs from the responsible party. Other investigations may lead to criminal prosecution in cases of arson, or other criminal conduct. Wildland fire investigations are critical for accurate statistical reporting, allocation of resources and on-going prevention efforts in the National Forest System. When you see your local investigator on the next incident, be sure to say hello and offer up any help you may be able to lend. If you’re interested in becoming a wildland fire investigator, reach out to your local LEI staff and fire management for further information.

Escaped campfire burned into forest

Wildland fire investigation scene (USDA stock photo)