Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

New Wildland Fire Investigators complete training in California

Instructor Olivia Rahman, right, guides fire investigation students through the investigation process on their final field exercise. Forest Service photo by Kerry Greene.

CALIFORNIA – Where there’s smoke, there’s fire; and by extension, fire investigators. The USDA Forest Service investigates all human-caused wildfires on National Forest System lands. Each year, a skilled cadre of experienced fire investigators comprised of Law Enforcement and Investigations and fire personnel train a new class of potential fire investigators at the Northern California Training Center, located in Redding, California.

During the Wildland Fire Origin and Cause Determination Course, otherwise known as FI-210, students are exposed to proven and accepted guidelines and recommendations for the safe and systematic application of wildland fire investigation methodology. This includes specialized principles, techniques, practices, equipment and terminology specific to wildland fires and wildland fire investigations. 

A team of fire investigation students makes a plan before entering their test plot. Forest Service photo by Kerry Greene.

Students learn how to read fire patterns and use investigation methods applied by wildland fire agencies across the country and internationally. “Fire does not know jurisdictional boundaries. This training prepares investigators from different agencies and geographical areas to work together and ensure unbiased investigations,” said Andrea Saltzman, Fire Prevention Technician with the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and FI-210 course coordinator.

The student’s primary jobs are in LEI and Fire and Aviation Management, fields from which they apply key elements used in fire investigations. “A fully qualified fire investigator from either staff group can conduct a thorough investigation,” said Saltzman. “But when FAM and LEI employees work together, each bring individual strengths that enhance the quality of the investigation.”

Instructor and Fire Prevention Officer, Olivia Rahman of Lake Tahoe, explains that when working with LEI, “fire personnel focus specifically on ‘Origin and Cause Determination.’ Fire personnel are expert at understanding fire behavior and burn pattern and assist LEI in their case development by performing foundational investigation tasks such as; origin and cause determination, protecting and collecting evidence, photo documentation and acquiring certain witness statements.”

In most cases, wildland fire investigators are able to determine the probable and possible causes of a fire. This information can aid the agency in cost recovery for suppression of destructive wildfires and more importantly, drive the focus of fire prevention programs. “Human carelessness, in many forms, is responsible for wildfires,” said Saltzman. Illegal and abandoned campfires and dragging tow chains are two common human causes of fires in northern California. “Human caused fires are easily preventable when people become aware of weather conditions and activities that produce sparks. Ideally, fire investigators would be worked out of a job.”

Fire investigation students confer about the direction the fire moved inside the practice plot. Notice they walk around the edge of the fire area making observations before they enter the plot. Forest Service photo by Kerry Greene.

Fire investigation students place pin flags like the yellow one in this picture to help indicate which direction the fire was moving at a given point within the fire area. Flags for advancing fire are red, backing fire are blue and lateral moving fire are yellow. Forest Service photo by Kerry Greene.

Good candidates for the fire investigation class are fire prevention patrols, fire prevention officers, forest protection officers, engine captains, law enforcement agents or any employee likely to be first on scene of a wildland fire. Just as important to determining the cause of the fire is knowing how to protect the scene and any evidence as well as gathering witness statements before an investigator arrives. The class gives prospective investigators a good overall understanding of the process of a fire investigation, even if they do not routinely investigate fires they can be of great help to those who do. Forest Service photo by Olivia Rahman.