Wrongful Arson Conviction: Case Review and Discussion

Robert J. Trenkle, CFI, CFEI

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2014

State of Michigan vs. Frederick Mardlin

On Monday, November 13, 2006 at 1410 hours (2:10 p.m.) a fire occurred at an owner occupied single family dwelling at 550 W. Mill Street, Capac, Michigan. The homeowner, Frederick Mardlin, lived there with his family and another family which was homeless and allowed to move in with the Mardlin’s. Prior to the fire, only Frederick Mardlin was home. He left the house to go to his brother’s house, who lived nearby. The fire was discovered by neighbors approximately 15-20 minutes after his departure. The fire was investigated by the local fire department, State Fire Marshal and a private investigator for the insurance company.

Numerous points made in the study by Paul Bieber, director, Arson Research Project, paralleled the Mardlin case, including mis-identifying the area of origin of the fire. Ignitable liquids were attributed to accelerating the fire although none were identified by laboratory analysis. Cognitive bias was apparent in their findings or they were the result of lacking knowledge in fire behavior, or both. Mr. Mardlin was convicted of Arson: Burning of a Dwelling House and Insurance Fraud. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. He served four years and was paroled. He was denied a new trial at the Appellate Court level and eventually the guilty verdict was vacated by the higher court. Hundreds of hours were spent by the appeals attorney, investigators and electrical engineer before the favorable outcome was reached. The discussion will explain the exhaustive efforts necessary to right the horrible wrong suffered by Mr. Mardlin.

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Underground leaks in propane or natural gas lines

Neglected Gasline Sign

Looking for an underground leak in a propane or natural gas line?  Go back to nature.  In addition to using your nose to detect the smell of the odorant (usually a mercaptan or similar compound), it is not unusual to see flies buzzing around the point where gas is leaking out of the ground.  Odorants are similar to the chemicals given off by rotting food, and the flies can’t tell the difference.  Other signs are dead grass or vegetation.  If the ground is wet, you may also see bubbles.

(Sources: R.Meier; and Explosion Investigation and Analysis by P.Kennedy)

The Great Halifax Explosion, 1917

World War I monument (the Great War), a field gun.
World War I monument (the Great War), a field gun.

At 9:05 a.m., in the harbor of Halifax in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, the most devastating manmade explosion in the pre-atomic age occurs when the Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, explodes 20 minutes after colliding with another vessel.

As World War I raged in Europe, the port city of Halifax bustled with ships carrying troops, relief supplies, and munitions across the Atlantic Ocean. On the morning of December 6, the Norwegian vessel Imo left its mooring in Halifax harbor for New York City. At the same time, the French freighter Mont Blanc, its cargo hold packed with highly explosive munitions–2,300 tons of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 35 tons of high-octane gasoline, and 10 tons of gun cotton–was forging through the harbor’s narrows to join a military convoy that would escort it across the Atlantic.

At approximately 8:45 a.m., the two ships collided, setting the picric acid ablaze. The Mont Blanc was propelled toward the shore by its collision with the Imo, and the crew rapidly abandoned the ship, attempting without success to alert the harbor of the peril of the burning ship. Spectators gathered along the waterfront to witness the spectacle of the blazing ship, and minutes later it brushed by a harbor pier, setting it ablaze. The Halifax Fire Department responded quickly and was positioning its engine next to the nearest hydrant when the Mont Blancexploded at 9:05 a.m. in a blinding white flash.

The massive explosion killed more than 1,800 people, injured another 9,000–including blinding 200–and destroyed almost the entire north end of the city of Halifax, including more than 1,600 homes. The resulting shock wave shattered windows 50 miles away, and the sound of the explosion could be heard hundreds of miles away.

Source – History.com

Quantifying the Hazards of Green Building Construction for Fire Investigation Analysis

Jason A. Sutula, PhD, PE, CFEI, CFII, CFI
Noah L. Ryder, MSFPE, MBA, PE, CFEI

Over the last several years, a continued push to design and build “green or sustainable” buildings has accelerated throughout the United States. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the term “green building” is defined as “…the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction.” The goal of green building construction is to reduce the overall impact of building and development on human health and the environment.

While the concept of green building construction and green materials is important from a global perspective to ensure minimal impact of growth and development on the environment, little thought has been given to the impact of green building construction and green materials on fire initiation or fire growth within green buildings or with green materials. The risk of using these materials in building construction has been highlighted by a number of recent fires in which firefighters were killed or injured, property losses have been excessive, and unexpected fire damage has been observed.

In the event that a fire incident occurs within green building construction, the type and installation locations of the green materials can result in enhanced heat release rates and pathways of fire spread not typically observed with standard construction materials. The composition, construction, and placement of green materials in newly constructed structures runs the risk of creating fire damage that may be misinterpreted by investigators after a fire incident.

Thus, a need exists to develop a methodology that can be used to valuate and compare the potential fire growth risk associated with green materials. This paper proposes the use of the cone alorimeter as a standard test method that would allow for relevant material properties and material performance data to be obtained on green materials. Example data is presented and linked to the potential consequences of fire growth on green materials as well as the probability of a fire occurring or spreading. A simple formulation is then proposed that can be used to compare the relative performance of green materials and the risk associated with them. Finally, the example data is extrapolated within a limited example of a post-fire scene reconstruction to assess resulting damage patterns in the context of green materials.

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Meet the NAFI team: Ron Hopkins

Meet the NAFI team: Ron Hopkins, President of NAFI

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.

Ron Hopkins is a full time fire investigation and explosion investigation consultant with TRACE Fire Protection and Safety Consultants. He was a faculty member of the Fire and Safety Engineering Technology program at Eastern Kentucky University for over thirty years teaching undergraduate and graduate level courses. He has also been a career or volunteer fire fighter for 50 years and is a third generation fire fighter. Ron is also the President of NAFI.

Ron has been married for 11 years to his lovely wife Pamela, between them they have four adult children, two sons and two daughters.

How did you get started working in fire investigation?
I got started in fire service in February 1966, my whole family had been a part of the fire service as volunteer and career members. While I was a career Fire Fighter with the Murray, Kentucky Fire Department I did some small fire investigations as a part of the requirement to complete fire run reports. From there, after completing my Master’s degree I joined the faculty Eastern Kentucky University teaching then in the Fire Prevention and Control (later named the Fire and Safety Engineering Technology Program). My teaching assignments were such that they allowed me to expand my involvement in the fire and explosion investigation field.

Why is NAFI an important organization for fire investigation?
NAFI has been a leader in the Fire Investigation profession for a very long time. Representatives of NAFI have been very active in both the national and international effort to improve the body of knowledge and technology of fire and explosion investigation and analysis. NAFI has had representation on the NFPA Technical Committee for Fire Investigation, which is responsible for NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigation since the technical committee was formed. NAFI was the first professional organization to officially endorse NFPA 921 and NFPA 1033 Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator by organizational resolution. There have been many important projects and research accomplished over the past 40 years that has had a tremendous impact on the continued improvement of the fire and explosion investigation profession.

Another key action that NAFI took was to be the first of the professional organization to organize and offer a professional credential for fire and explosion investigators. The NAFI Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI) program is a methodology for Fire and Explosion investigators to demonstrate that they have a body of knowledge and experience to meet the certification requirements. Certification does not mean that you’re the best, but it does mean that you’ve demonstrated the required degree of proficiency. Over the years, NAFI has expanded the opportunities for other important certification programs including the Certified Fire Investigator Instructor (CFII) and Certified Vehicle Fire Investigator (CVFI) which have also gained national and international participation and acceptance.

Lastly, NAFI recognized the need to enhance the need to reach out to those in the Fire and Explosion Investigation community and established the International Association of Fire Investigators.

What is your favorite part of being on the board with NAFI?
The organization continues to grow, being more involved in the fire and explosion investigation community and most importantly continues to improve. My belief as a member of the NAFI board, continued improvement is absolutely critical; personal development, professional development, it’s a part of everything we do. Improvement is why I remain active on the board and in the teaching of my professions, not only during NAFI sponsored programs, but teaching investigators in many of the US States and all over the world, including Canada, Korea, England, Germany, Malaysia, China, and Saudi Arabia

By participating in NAFI and other professional organizations, the profession gets better, people that don’t share, don’t help to improve the profession.

What advice do you have for Fire Investigators that are just starting out?
This is a very difficult question to answer. Entering into the field of fire and explosion investigation is different from other professions. There are limited options for entering the private sector with no or very limited experience. Some of the larger investigation companies and insurance companies are an option. The other option is through the fire service or law enforcement.

Either way, someone wishing to enter should:
1 – Study the sciences, you need to have a science background in addition to good investigative skills.
2 – Get practical, hands on experience, to balance your academics.
3 – Become active in your state fire service training entities.
4 – Find a good mentor or a position that offers good on the job training opportunities. Keeping in mind that only so much can be done at the academic level.

What is a quote that you live by?
Start early, stay late.

What is your favorite thing to do in your down time?
I’m an accomplished woodworker, my last big project was our kitchen cabinets, my wife made stained glass panels as inserts.

When you were a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Did not know. However, when I graduated from High School and completed my tour in the USAF, I wanted to be a High School shop teacher. That lasted 8 weeks and three days in the public school system, but I still had the desire to teach. Thanks to Eastern Kentucky University, NAFI and other Fire and Safety related organizations I was able to fulfill that plan.

Final thoughts:
Retirement is great, it provides me time to do the things that are important. Shop time, family time, and sharing my thoughts with others through sharing information.

Which ignites at a higher temperature? Hard or soft woods?

Which ignites at a higher temperature, hard or soft woods?  If you said hard woods, think again.  Because of the composition and structure of their cell walls, soft woods generally require a higher temperature to ignite.  (Now what, Fire Biology?)

(Source: Measurement of the Ignition Temperature of Wood, Yudong, L. and Drysdale, D.)

The first time a corporation was charged with murder

A grand jury indicted Ford on three counts of reckless homicide in the deaths of three teenage girls who died after their 1973 Ford Pinto was hit from behind and burst into flames on an Indiana Highway.

Read full article on History.com

The Death of Negative Corpus

The Death of Negative Corpus (Abridged Version)
Dennis W. Smith, BA, BSc

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2012

The Negative Corpus Methodology [NCM], the belief that the elimination of known potential fire causes (ignition sources), proves some unknown fire cause for which no evidence exists, has long standing in the fire investigation community. The 2011 edition of NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations  finally repudiated and firmly rejected the NCM, although in some segments of the fire investigation community there is still deep-rooted use and reliance on this improper and unethical process.

This program is a follow-up to the 2006 presentation at ISFI  International Symposium on Fire Investigation Science & Technology) “The Pitfalls, Perils and Reasoning Fallacies of Determining the Fire Cause in the Absence of Proof: The Negative Corpus Methodology.” That article made the case that the NCM relied on unsupported and faulty reasoning such as the appeal to ignorance  and a disjunctive form of reasoning, often in the form of the disjunctive syllogism . Relying on these fallacies ultimately resulted in opinions that were neither valid nor reliable.

In addition to revisiting some of the fundamental logical reasoning fallacies relied upon using the NCM, this program will provide real-world examples of the application of the NCM; and, explore new studies that further demonstrate the procedural failings and shortcomings of the NCM to further expose it as an invalid and unreliable method for purposes of determining the cause of a fire. Lastly, the article will demonstrate how the NCM fails to meet the Daubert criteria concerning the reliability of expert opinion.

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Earliest recorded fire…

The fossil record of fire first appears with the establishment of a land-based flora in the Middle Ordovician period, 470 million years ago. The presence of land based plants permitted the accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere as never before. When the concentration of oxygen rose about 13%, wildfire became possible. Wildfire is first recorded in the late Silurian fossil record, 420 million years ago, by fossils of charcoalified plants.

Source: Wikipedia

Lightning Related Structure Fires

Fork lightning striking down during summer storm

Lightning Related Structure Fires
Andrew D. Ellison, CFEI
Timothy Morse, PhD, PE, CFEI
Harri Kytomaa, PhD, PE, CFEI
Exponent, Inc., USA

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2012

From 2003-2007 over 4,000 structure fires were caused by lightning annually. These structure fires caused a collective $241 million in damages each year. Lightning is considered a natural fire cause, and can damage both a structure and its contents. This paper will provide a review of lightning-related fires, as well as investigative techniques to utilize when presented with a possible lightning incident.

When lightning discharges to a structure, its energy seeks all available paths to ground. Therefore, lightning damage can be located in multiple apparently unrelated locations throughout a home. These paths often involve continuous conductive systems such as electrical wires, plumbing pipes, and ventilation ducts. As the electrical energy travels to the electrical ground, it can also jump across significant air gaps between adjacent conductors, and break down insulation.

When investigating a fire caused by lightning discharges, it is important that the investigator document the scene thoroughly. Particular attention should be given to metallic or conductive rooftop penetrations (plumbing vents, heating system flue-pipes, chimney caps, etc.) which may have been the point of entry of the lightning strike. Often, such components will demonstrate localized damage consistent with melting or other deformation which is inconsistent with damage from the fire event. Furthermore, the investigator should investigate and document all paths of electrical energy within the home that may exhibit evidence of lightning energy including those that may involve the area(s) of origin of the fire. Paths for lightning energy to ground include branch circuit wiring systems, plumbing systems, metallic structural components, telecommunications wires, etc. These paths typically include the path from the point of entry of lightning to the area of origin as well as the path between the area of origin and the electrical ground of the home.

This paper will discuss the phenomenon of lightning and how lightning energy can enter a home and cause a fire. It also discusses home construction factors that affect the likelihood of a lightning fire. This paper will conclude with some recommended guidelines for fire investigators to consider when investigating an apparent lightning-caused residential fire.

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