From Public Adjustors USA, Inc.

MYTHS AND OTHER FALSEHOODS ARE OFTEN PRESENTED AS SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE

MANY RULINGS OF ARSON ARE NOT ARSON AT ALL

by Tim Zeak

The following are only a few of the common myths and false indicators that many fire investigators testify to be scientific evidence that an arson has occurred, when in fact many have been scientifically disproved. Some are also phenomena which are regularly over-emphasized or misinterpreted to reach conclusions that are scientifically wrong. While the cause of some fires can clearly be determined, others cannot be determined. However, the causes of numerous fires are erroneously given for a variety of reasons.

Some are fraudulently misstated, but most wrong findings are just due to unsound teaching, ignorance, and an incredible campaign of false propaganda by the insurance industry. The following are a few of those reasons:

  1. Concrete spalling is often given as evidence of arson when not too long ago, it was decided by most experts that it should be debunked. Numerous laboratory tests which saturated concrete with gasoline and other flammables (even torches were used on some) failed to produce the spalling. There are many reasons why concrete will spall, and arson is usually not one of them. Many consumers have lost everything to their insurance company because of this one faulty indicator alone.

  2. Greasy windows a couple of decades ago was at least an indicator to look at. However, with so many petroleum products now in the average home or business, greasy windows mean absolutely nothing. Yet in some circles, it is still seen as an indicator of arson.

  3. Color of smoke was often thought to be an indication of whether or not an accelerant was used. There are usually too many variables for this to be safely interpreted.

  4. White ash used to be a common theory until it was recently debunked. In fact, experiments have proven that the existence of white ash means exactly the opposite of what some "fire investigators" use to justify denials of claims.

  5. Accelerants burn hotter was disproved by none other than the National Fire Protection Association. In their guides section 921, 4-8.1 we read, "Wood and gasoline burn at essentially the same flame temperature." It is true that an accelerant fire gets hotter faster but not hotter overall. Still today, many consumers have their claims denied, and some even are convicted of arson because some ignorant or fraudulent "expert" convinced a jury that certain melted contents items proved accelerants were used.

  6. Tripped circuit breakers proves little. How often have you heard from some so-called expert that the power must have been on because it tripped? Not necessarily. Most all breakers' tripping action is spring loaded, so it can trip if the breaker gets hot enough even if it was off during the fire. If you don't believe us, try baking one in your kitchen oven. Put it in its OFF position, crank up the heat to 400°, and check it in about 20 minutes. While this is not a classic false arson indicator, it does show that many so-called "experts" don't even know or understand the basics. Yet they present long credentials to juries who assume they do.

  7. Collapsed furniture springs. NFPA 921,4-14 states, "The collapse of springs cannot be used to indicate exposure to a specific heat source such as "flaming accelerant or smoldering combustion." Another famous arson indicator is now debunked.

  8. Fast fires do not in themselves indicate an arson fire. There are many accidental fires that burn fast, too. Numerous variables must be considered, and this is another example of a "little knowledge" being dangerous. Captain Denny Smith ACFD recently wrote the following, "It is important to remember that an "accidental fire" can develop faster than an incendiary fire, and an incendiary fire can develop more slowly than an accidental fire. Basically, there is no relationship between speed of fire growth and any particular ignition scenario. Fire development scenarios (speed of fire growth) are contingent on many variables, such as HRR (heat release rates) of the initial fuel, geometry of the space (narrow rooms, wide rooms, high ceilings v. low ceilings), location of the fuel package within the space (in a corner, against a wall, near the center of the room), the lining materials, and the proximity of secondary fuels. These are some of the variables to be considered in a fire growth scenario. See NFPA 921, sections 3-4 and 3-5 for additional information. Also see section 17-2.8 which is a warning against using subjective observations and terms such as 'excessive,' 'unnatural,' or 'abnormal' fire growth as indicators of incendiary fire causes."

  9. Burn patterns. I have seen numerous "fire investigators" who read burn patterns less competently than someone would read tea leaves, and there is nothing about tea leaves that I believe. Some of these so-called "experts" will say that it is a definite sign of a liquid accelerant if they find the bottom of a door charred. Yet numerous tests have proven that that phenomena generally occurs when a door is closed and hot gases (not accelerants) escape through the space at the top of the closed door. Cool air generally enters the compartment at the bottom of the door. The hot gases then escape under the door and cause charring under the door and possibly even through the threshold. In a recent test, accelerants were poured in a living room and set on fire. None was poured in the kitchen, yet holes were found in the kitchen floor but none in the living room (20 feet away). There are so many complex variables involved in studying fire behavior which have caused many to call it "junk science." The fact of the matter is that many of these so-called "experts" are no more qualified to perform surgery on you than they are to look at a fire and determine its cause. Yet with refined speeches and designer suits, and with technical rhetoric that few judges and even fewer jurors can understand, they come across to most juries as "smooth as silk." While some burn patterns can be accurately interpreted, it is often forgotten that the more fire damage to the building, the less they can tell. One investigator pointed to a hole in the roof which had collapsed and said that hole was evidence of a poured burn pattern. It's examples like this that are causing a growing number of people to call the field of fire investigation nothing but a "junk science." Is the risk of error too high and too common not to take drastic action?

  10. Multiple origin fires. While multiple origin is indeed a very good indicator of arson, it's down right sickening to see insurance companies' investigators and police authorities interpret drop fires as multiple origins. I was in a house once when a deputy fire marshal came in. He said he knew nothing about electricity or furnaces, but said he was going to find out "what the hell caused the fire." Within five minutes he thought he had it figured out. He saw what he said was a second fire in front of the living room window. When I asked him if it was possible for the heat from the utility room (clearly the point of origin) to have ignited the drapes which then dropped to the floor and scorched it, he became mad and left. His report ruled that the cause of the fire was arson, when clearly it wasn't. The owner had recently moved (job transfer), so it was "obvious" to this "investigator" that the owner just had to have done it.

  11. Unpredictability: Honest experts who have conducted many tests will readily agree that fire sometimes does very mysterious things which just cannot be explained. Some experiments come out totally inconsistent with what is generally normal. Many experiments produce results which make no sense at all. The fact is, there are numerous variables (moisture content in wood, type of wood, drafts [many of which are unknown], vents, wind [and wind often shifts back and forth], humidity, oxygen, size of rooms, ceiling heights, seldom knowing for sure everything that burned (fuel), etc., etc....any one of which can make a fire behave unpredictably. Worse yet, after a fire does its damage, many possible variables are never even known to be considered. Lt. Steckmeister recently wrote, "One of the many problems in fire investigation is that no single indicator can be taken at face value without considering other factors."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Because the industry is wrong so many times and has failed to adequately police itself, more and more people have been raising the argument that fire investigation is nothing but a "junk science" or some kind of voodoo. It appears that some courts may be agreeing. The U.S.Supreme Court Case of Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, ruled that expert testimony in areas of untested scientific theory (junk science) requires the proving the scientific reliability of every aspect of the analysis used to reach a final opinion. While the Daubert case was not about a fire investigation, nevertheless, The U.S. Court of Appeals has applied it to one in Michigan Miller's Mutual v. Benfield, U.S.C.A.No.97-9138. Because so many innocent people are being jailed and wrongfully losing their homes and businesses to insurance companies, it is probably wise if Courts would declare it a "junk science" until a system with scientific integrity can be put in place. We profusely apologize to the many fire investigators who are honest and competent, but there are just too many who are not which puts the public at too great of a risk. We need to catch arsonists. That is a good thing to do, but we cannot allow the "lynching" of numerous innocent people by fraudulent and ignorant witch hunters. A couple of years ago, a mother was not only charged with arson, but charged with the murder of her children who died in the fire. When testimony of the deputy fire marshal during the criminal trial didn't "gel" the prosecutor became very suspicious. Other fire experts were able to show that the investigation was not conducted or processed in accordance with professional standards. The criminal charges were dropped against the mother and the deputy charged with perjury. He was later ordered to pay the mother $500,000 in damages. If the deputy didn't trip himself up, the likelihood of a different verdict would have been quite great. Our hat goes off to this prosecutor who did not allow the adversarial process of our judicial system nor the fact that he originally believed the deputy to be credible to cloud his thinking.

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