“Breaking Bad” – Investigating Fires From Chemicals and Chemical Reactions

Elizabeth C. Buc, PhD, PE, CFI
Fire and Materials Research Laboratory LLC

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2014


Under some conditions, chemicals that are otherwise stable can react, evolve heat and cause a fire, detonate or explode. The fire investigator has to identify the chemical reactants, the reaction products and conditions that supported ignition and flame spread. A chemical fire investigation flow diagram and real-world examples of fires involving chemicals are presented to assist the fire investigator in processing chemical fires. Examples of chemical fires include self-heating, a thermite reaction, a runaway reaction from mixing incompatible materials and reactions generating hydrogen gas. Factors contributing to chemical fires such as size or quantity of material, confinement, contamination and upset process conditions are identified. Sampling, chemical analyses, literature review, and/or testing proposed or potential adverse chemical reactions are required to establish the root cause of a chemical fire.

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Have you tested your theory? Your risk of exclusion just doubled.

Gerald A. King, J.D., CFEI
Armstrong Teasdale LLP, USA

Karrie J. Clinkinbeard, J.D., CFEI
Armstrong Teasdale LLP, USA

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2012


Both federal and state courts require experts to employ reliable scientific methodologies. Various jurisdictions employ different factors in determining whether an expert’s methodology is scientifically reliable. For years, courts have excluded unreliable expert testimony in fire litigation, an issue previously the subject of Experts Beware: Ignoring the Scientific Method Can Be Hazardous to Your Testimony , an article and presentation included in the ISFI 2010 Proceedings.

Despite the fact that the courts and NFPA 1033, the Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigators, require fire investigators to employ all elements of the scientific method as the operating analytical process throughout the investigation and for the drawing of conclusions, experts still fail to utilize the scientific method to ensure the reliability of their opinions. Some experts still believe that they can ignore the scientific method by claiming NFPA 921 is only a guide. Although many courts cite NFPA 921 as the “industry standard” for judging an expert’s methodology, other courts exclude experts for the failure to follow the principles articulated in NFPA 921 without ever citing to NFPA 921. An expert’s claim that NFPA 921 is “only a guide” does not relieve the expert from demonstrating that the chosen methodology is scientifically reliable. The legal standards governing the admissibility of an expert’s opinion demand a scientifically reliable methodology. Ignoring the principles set forth in NFPA 921 can and with almost certainty will result in exclusion  of an expert’s opinions (in whole or in part) and open an expert to the risk of third party lawsuits.

This article provides an updated look at these issues and analyzes recent cases where an expert’s testimony has been excluded in fire litigation and, in some instances, the expert has been sued for these deficiencies. Experts are excluded for ignoring facts or relying upon speculative facts. There is a trend towards excluding experts who do not test their ignition theory, particularly in product liability cases. The common theme in these cases continues to be that the expert ignored a step in the scientific method and, therefore, the opinions are unreliable and inadmissible.

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Detecting and Confirming the Presence of Road Flare Residue in Fire Investigations

Scott Nesvold, M.S., M.Eng., P.E.
Crane Engineering Building Science, USA
Kerri Pacholke, MFS, F-ABC
Crane Engineering, USA

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2012


In a recent fire investigation, a vehicle owner claimed an accidental fire had destroyed his vehicle. An observant fire investigator, who suspected arson based on the facts of the case, found a small pile of “white residue” and some other parts in the debris and sent the residue to a lab to be analyzed. Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FT-IR) was conducted as a presumptive test and revealed the presence of Strontium, a common chemical found in road flares. The presence of a high concentration of Strontium was confirmed using a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) combined with an Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS) unit. Based on the evidence and this analysis, the residue was confirmed to be from a road flare. The vehicle fire was determined to be incendiary based on this analysis.

A test burn was conducted in a furnished condemned house. The house was burned room by room for fire investigator training. One fire was ignited in a furnished living room with a red road flare placed at the leg of a couch. The room was allowed to burn post-flashover for several minutes. Normal suppression and overhaul was performed by the firefighters on the scene. On the following day, a team of fire investigators was asked to determine the source of ignition. The flare residue remained and was visible in the area of origin, but was not discovered or identified by the team of investigators assigned to that particular room.

The testing required to identify flare residue is not included during standard ignitable liquid residue (ILR) tests. Traditional analysis performed on fire debris is for the presence of ILRs which are organic and volatile. Road flare residues are solid and inorganic and therefore, are not detectible using these standard examination techniques.

The residue that remains after burning a road flare is a whitish-grey solidified pool. The color and texture of the white material blends well with gypsum wallboard or plaster fragments typically found after post-flashover fires or fire department overhaul procedures and is therefore easily overlooked. Other components of a road flare may also be present including a cap, wooden plug, metal nail, wire legs, a base or possibly the remains of the cardboard tube.

Road flares are widely available for purchase, and are often included in a typical roadside safety kit. This widespread availability, high burn temperature (1450 °C, 2650 °F) and high heat release rate lends itself as a ready ignition source for incendiary fires. Due to the extended burn times of some road flares, they can be used to delay the start of an incendiary fire which may allow an alibi to be established.

Historically, minimal research has been performed on the role of road flares in incendiary fires. This research investigates the chemical signatures present following a fire that positively identifies the presence of road flare residue. It will also evaluate the remaining components and residue and visual burn patterns that occur when road flares are placed in proximity to common construction materials (such as gypsum wall board, carpet, plywood subfloors, etc.). Finally, it examines the remaining components and residue following vehicle fires.

NFPA 921 requires that the source of ignition, first fuel and the circumstances or conditions which brought them together be identified. The purpose of this research is to assist fire investigators in identifying the possible remains of a road flare during a fire investigation and explain the methods used to confirm the presence of a road flare through FT-IR and SEM-EDS analysis.

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Fire Effects on High Efficiency Compact Florescent Lighting

Richard J. Meier, CFEI, CFII, CVFI
Staff Fire and Explosion Analyst
John A. Kennedy and Associates
Fire and Explosion Analysis Experts, USA

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2012


The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 has mandated that most of the incandescent lights currently in use will be phased out by 2014 and replaced with more efficient means of producing light. Many manufacturers have begun producing compact fluorescent and LED lighting to replace the incandescent bulb. While this is a boon for energy conservation, what will it mean for the fire investigator? For years investigators have used heat distorted light bulbs to help determine the origin and intensity of fires. The purpose of this study is to establish a base of information on the effects of fire on new styles of lighting, and how the effects of fire can aid the investigator in his or her work.

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Wind Turbine Fire Origin Investigation

Timothy L. Morse, Ph.D., P.E.
Robert W. Whittlesey, Ph.D., CFEI
Exponent, Inc.

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2014

Wind turbines and wind farms have become increasingly widespread in the United States. Due to the combination of potential ignition sources (electrical failure, overheating of rotating components, lightning strikes) and multiple fuel loads (fiberglass, bearing grease, gearbox oil, hydraulic oil) wind turbine fires are a regular occurrence. Since wind turbine fires often occur in the nacelle, which can be 200 feet or more above the ground, firefighting options are limited. Wind turbine firefighting efforts are usually directed at preventing the spread of the fire to adjacent land or structures, such as by falling flaming debris, rather than extinguishing the fire. As a result, wind turbine fires often burn until the fuel uptower is exhausted and the fire self-extinguishes. This can present a challenge to a fire origin investigation. Many fire patterns that are observed in a nacelle can provide misleading or conflicting information as they may indicate a fuel load or a source of ventilation, rather than the fire origin. Therefore, attempting to use fire patterns alone to identify the origin is often unsuccessful.

A wind turbine fire origin investigation can be greatly assisted by the large amount of data that is recorded regarding the operation of a wind turbine. Wind turbines are heavily instrumented, with sensors throughout the turbine. Position sensors monitor the blade pitch position, the nacelle yaw position, and the rotational speed of the high speed and low speed shafts. Temperature sensors monitor the gearbox oil temperature, the hydraulic oil temperature, and the brake temperature (as well as other temperatures). The performance of the electrical systems (generator, transformer, inverter) are carefully monitored. Wind turbines also often have vibration sensors in various locations. The data from these sensors are used to control the operation of the turbine through the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system. This system logs the states of all these sensors as often as once every second and records any alarm states.

A detailed review of this logged data can provide essential guidance to the wind turbine fire investigator. The logged data can indicate which systems or components are having problems prior to the fire, identify any rapid changes in operational state proximate to the time of the fire, or show which systems or components are still functional during the fire and when they lose functionality. A full understanding of the location of the different sensors, and where their communication lines run may also provide indications of the direction of fire spread. Any fire origin that is considered must be consistent with the timing and nature of the SCADA data and SCADA alarms.

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Optimization of Carbon Monoxide Detector Layout in Residential Structures

Derek Engel, Scott Davis
GexCon US, 8433 Rugby Ave. Suite 100, Bethesda, MD 20814

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2012

The current NFPA 720 code requirement for carbon monoxide (CO) detectors in residential structures requires placement outside of each separate sleeping area and on each floor of the residence. There is however no further guidance to specific placement of the detector (high, low, near or within furnace closets, etc.), as well as no acknowledgement to different housing and HAVC styles (forced hot air, hot water, etc.). As the concentration of CO approaches several hundred parts per million, the time for detector alarm can be as little as a few minutes, much smaller than the characteristic mixing time of the residence. The general basis for detector placement requirements assumes that once the flue gases cool CO is generally neutrally buoyant in air, and becomes well mixed and distributed evenly throughout the residence. Previous investigations have concluded that the CO is well mixed for residences with forced hot air heating systems and the CO in hot flue gases stratifies due to buoyancy for systems without an air-handling device to cause mixing.

Using the CFD software FLACS, a study was performed to evaluate how CO would disperse and migrate in various residential structures and various HVAC designs. The goal would be to evaluate the migration of CO originating from hot flue gases, which are improperly vented into structures, and assess the validity of the well-mixed assumption as well as study the general dispersion patterns. In addition, the study will provide further guidance as to optimal places for detector placement to allow early detection, while minimizing nuisance alarms.

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Ignition Propensity of Cannabis Cigarettes

Zachary J. Jason, PE, CFEI
Dennis E. Shelp, MS, PE, CFI, CFEI
John L. Schumacher, MChE, PE, CFI, CFPS
Todd J. Hedglin, CFI, CFEI
AEI Corporation
Littleton, CO, USA

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2014


It is well known that cigarettes are the leading cause of fire deaths in the United States.  The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that in 2011 alone, there were over 90,000 smoking-related fires, contributing to over 540 civilian deaths, 1,640 civilian injuries, and $621 million in direct property damage. However, the NFPA statistics, collected from The National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and the NFPA annual survey, define “Smoking Materials” as lighted tobacco products (typically tobacco cigarettes). There is little to no data regarding fires caused by cannabis, or what will hereafter be referred to as marijuana cigarettes.

With the recent legalization of marijuana in the states of Colorado and Washington, pending potential legalization in 13 other states, and 20 states with medical-marijuana systems already in place the availability and usage of marijuana is becoming more commonplace. This raises many interesting questions with regard to fire safety as it relates to marijuana cigarettes. For example, what are the burn times and smoldering capability for marijuana cigarettes? How do marijuana cigarettes compare with tobacco cigarettes in their ability to initiate smoldering combustion in upholstered furniture and mattresses? To date, research regarding these questions has been difficult due to the illegal status of cannabis, and currently very little is known about the ignition propensity and combustion characteristics of marijuana cigarettes. Given the recent changes in Colorado law, however, AEI Corporation has performed some of the first scientific testing of its kind looking at the smoldering and burning behavior of marijuana cigarettes.

This paper outlines the first phase of our research into the overall fire hazards of marijuana cigarettes and compares the ignition characteristics of marijuana to those of tobacco, when tested in accordance with current test methods adopted for the tobacco industry. More specifically, our testing quantifies the ignition strength of marijuana cigarettes and their propensity to ignite soft furnishings based on the parameters set forth in American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) Standard E2187-2009, Standard Test Method for Measuring the Ignition Strength of Cigarettes.  The results of our tests evaluating ignition propensity of marijuana cigarettes are presented in comparison to those of tobacco cigarettes tested under the same conditions. In addition, the effects of different variables on the burning, smoldering, and ignition propensity of marijuana cigarettes will be examined.

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ISFI Proceedings Flash Sale

Flash Sale

on past ISFI Proceedings (2004 – 2014)

All past electronic
(CD or Thumb Drive) editions
are just $25

July 11 – 15 ONLY


Metallurgy and Fire Investigation

Elizabeth C. Buc, PhD, PE, CFI
Fire and Materials Research Laboratory, LLC, USA

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2012


NFPA 921 Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations recognizes the need for specialists for certain aspects of fire cause investigations. One such area is metallurgical failure analysis. Examples of metallurgical aspects that overlap the fire investigation field include vessel and pipeline failures from corrosion or welded joint failures causing loss of containment (i.e., natural gas); wear and mechanical breaks or failures that generate sparks or frictional heating that cause ignition; and elucidation of heat or fire versus electrical arc damage to current carrying components, such as conductors, motor windings, contacts, and fuses. Equally important, metallurgy can be used to determine the effects of fire on low-melting temperature alloys, such as brass and brazed joints, to determine when damage occurred and if it contributed to the cause of a fire or was a result of fire exposure. Like fire investigation, metallurgical root-cause failure analyses are performed according to a recognized professional standard methodology that meets the criteria for admissibility. Here, key elements of a metallurgical-based failure analysis are highlighted with specific metallurgical-based fire cause investigation case studies.

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Meet a NAFI member: Brian Henry

Meet a NAFI member: Brian Henry

Everyone at the National Association of Fire Investigators works hard to make sure our members reach their goals by supporting them with a variety of NFPA based trainings, certifications, and resources. When our members have the relevant education and resources that meet their needs, we’ve succeeded! We are proud of our team and are happy to share more about them with you.

Brian Henry is a Shareholder in the Sarasota, Florida office of Smith, Rolfes & Skavdahl Company, LPA.  Brian is nationally-recognized for his knowledge and experience on expert preclusion issues, having written and lectured extensively on the subject and having handled more than 100 Daubert-type challenges in cases throughout the country. Brian has served as an expert witness on the standard of care for attorneys handling fire science cases, and he is a frequent lecturer on fire science, expert preclusion, and product liability issues at conferences throughout the country.

Brian and his wife Elizabeth have been married for 20 years and have two children, Sydney, 11, and Cooper, 9. They relocated to Lakewood Ranch, Florida, from Connecticut five years ago. Coincidentally, they thank Pat Kennedy with NAFI for their family’s relocation to Florida, as Pat invited Brian to speak at the NAFI Annual Conference in Sarasota several years in a row, and they fell in love with the area during those visits.

Brian will be speaking at ISFI 2016, you can get a preview of his presentation here.

How did you get started working with fire investigation/fire investigators?

I worked for a great attorney who handled fire cases for a major insurance carrier. The carrier was a large client of ours and it had its national fire science laboratory 20 minutes from the office. I had full access to all kinds of training and all of their experts, for free. I was fortunate to be able to attend all of their internal training sessions, ultimately obtaining over 1000 hours of fire investigation education through that client. I had full access to everything – an opportunity that most other attorneys would never have.

In my view, fire science litigation is a much more complex and complicated field of law than most insurance-related litigation.  There is a level of scientific understanding that is required far beyond what is needed in “typical” cases.  Many lawyers will tell you they have “handled” fire cases, but what they really have done is “parrot” what their expert witnesses have told them to say.  When I began in the field, I was very uncomfortable with that – with not knowing whether my expert really knew what he or she was talking about.  With the background I have in the field, I can have a substantive conversation with them about the evidence in the case. It becomes a true litigation partnership, which I think is essential.

I enjoy fire litigation because it’s more of a mystery or a puzzle than a regular case. My work starts from the moment of the claim — I get to be involved in solving the mystery from the outset.  Many times I get calls while a fire is still burning, giving me the opportunity to be part of the initial fire scene investigation.

My involvement with NAFI goes back more than a decade.  In the early 2000’s, I began attending NFPA 921 meetings, and I met Pat Kennedy at one of those meetings.  From there, I joined NAFI and, ever since then, I have taught at NAFI’s Annual Conference, and I have taught a few times at ISFI.  Several years ago, NAFI selected me as its General Counsel, and I am very proud to serve the organization in that fashion.

Why is NAFI an important organization for fire investigation?

I think the importance of NAFI is demonstrated through the sheer amount of educational opportunities offered to members and the general public.  There are numerous conferences throughout the year, and the International Symposium on Fire Investigations is offered every other year.  Any time you offer those kinds of high-quality forums to the public, that’s a good thing.  I work with many, many fire investigators – some good, and some not so good.  But the ones that a particularly dangerous are the ones who simply ignore the educational opportunities out there, and fail to keep up with the current state of fire science.  Those folks don’t fare too well in depositions or at trial with me questioning them.  NAFI provides crucial opportunities for people to develop their knowledge base in this very important field.

What is your favorite part of being involved with NAFI?

I really enjoy being part of an organization that is devoted to developing the quality of fire investigations.  Both the programs offered throughout the year and the biennial Symposium really provide opportunities for high-level discussions on fire science issues.  I am able to take what comes out of those events and use them in my practice.

What advice do you have for someone just starting out in your field/specialty with fire investigators?

They have to become educated in the subject matter.  It is not enough to simply repeat or “parrot” what an expert witness tells you, or to robotically ask a pre-set list of questions.  You have to understand the science; if you don’t, you’ll never be able to be an effective fire science litigator.  I recommend that they work with an expert in the field and get onto the scenes and learn. I’ve probably investigated 150 to 200 fire scenes, actually getting my hands dirty and trying to determine the origin and cause of a fire.  It makes a huge difference in understanding what you’re looking at in any given case, and how to approach future cases.

What advice do you have for existing NAFI members or fire investigators?

The learning process never ends.  If you think you can’t learn something or be taught something, you’re a relic of the past. Every day there is a new development, somewhere in our field.  I routinely see experts who think they can’t be taught something.  Then, when they are at a deposition or on the witness stand, they figure out, quite unfortunately, that they were wrong.  There are many tools that NAFI provides to help with training and continuing education.

What is your favorite book?

I’ve always liked the fantasy genre, so I would say The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  My favorite author currently is Steve Berry, who writes great historical mystery fiction.

When you were a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

Interestingly, for a brief period of time as a small child, I wanted to be a priest.  That didn’t last too long, and then I got into history and learning about the Presidents.  So, I decided I wanted to be President, and I learned that most of them had been attorneys, so I needed to be an attorney.  I no longer have any desire to be in politics, but the intention to become an attorney stuck.