WILBUR — After marking plots of charred ground as if in a crime scene, soon-to-be wildfire investigators noted the direction blades of tall grass were bent and observed the amount of soot on particular sides of plants. They placed colorful flags near these indicators, working toward their goal of identifying where the fire had started and what had caused it.
“It all tells a story to show where the point of origin was,” said Kyle Reed, spokesman of the Douglas Forest Protective Association. “It’s somewhat of a science and somewhat of an art.”
About 40 adult students, including three from the Netherlands, conducted mock fire investigations during a field exercise Wednesday afternoon off North Bank Road near Wilbur. The fire professionals started the Oregon Department of Forestry fire investigation class Monday at Umpqua Community College, and it was time to put what they had learned into action.
DFPA staff burned 20 plots of ground earlier in the week to serve as additional training for some of the firefighters. The agency left behind evidence for the trainees to find at the points of origin, such as matches, fireworks, metal fragments or cigarettes.
Students started following the indicators through the plots. They posted red flags in places where the fire advanced, yellow where the fire moved laterally and blue where the flames branched away from the point of origin. After covering each burned area with the colored flags, they could see a clear map of where the fire progressed and were able to identify where the fires ignited.
“By taking this class we’re hoping to achieve the methods and skills to be able to process a scene and understand whether the fires are arson, equipment-related or kids-related,” said Nick Case, Elkhead forest officer with DFPA. “This is our simulated fire and we’re walking around it doing our methodology trying to figure out how the fire started.”
Case said he interviewed a mock witness to gather more information about the fire.
“We train all our forest officers and relief drivers the basics so they can get an idea of what to flag off, what to protect. And this prepares them for that next step of being fire investigators,” Reed said.
Lead instructor of the class, Jeff Bonebrake of the Oregon Department of Forestry, said investigations like these can uncover scientific evidence used in legal cases to determine who is liable for starting a wildfire.
“If we find the cause to be willful, malicious or negligent, then we’re mandated by a statute to recover the cost of suppressing the fire,” Bonebrake said.
“In order to do that you need to have a solid investigation and you’ve got to have qualified investigators,” Reed added.
Both students and instructors were from various agencies including DFPA, Oregon Department of Forestry, Oregon State Police, Bureau of Land Management, rural fire departments and Coos Forest Patrol. Each agency represented in the class has its own fire investigators to gather statistics during every fire season.
The investigations are also crucial for establishing effective fire prevention programs. In order to prevent fires the agencies need to know what’s causing them.
“When you hear those claims ‘this many fires were caused by fireworks, this many were caused by target shooting,’ that’s how we know that,” Jim Gersbach, ODF public information officer, said. “People had gone out and investigated and determined the cause.”
Three men traveled from the Netherlands, to attend the week-long course.
Mark Oost, a wildfire professional in the Netherlands, said this type of training wasn’t available in his country. He found out about the program when an instructor from Oregon came out to conduct a past training in the Netherlands.
“One thing that was quite peculiar, the method of performing an investigation is generally the same as in Holland, so it’s refreshing my memory,” Oost said. “But I’m untrained in investigating wildfires so most of it will be really new for me.” The practical part of the class will be applicable for Oost when he returns to the Netherlands, although he said the laws regarding wildfires are different.
“They had looked at where they could take this fire investigation class anywhere in the world and it turned out based on their schedules this was the class,” Gersbach said of the three men.
The scientific method is the same worldwide, but conditions, landscapes and access points from roads vary between Southern Oregon and the Netherlands. While many of the Netherland’s forests are established in a plantation style which are easier to access, Gersbach said, Douglas County’s forests have much more roadless areas and steeper topography.
This class was one of the several classes Oregon Department of Forestry hosts each year, though a fire investigation class like this hasn’t been offered in Douglas County since 2013.