PHOTOGRAPHING THE FIRE SCENE

by Tony Cafe

It is normally impractical to take physical evidence from a fire scene to a court room so the investigator must rely on the use of photographs to document much of the evidence and to support the observations, opinions and conclusions the investigator wishes to make as to the cause of the fire. As well as supporting the investigator's conclusions, the photographs should also provide evidence which would counteract arguments of alternative causes of the fire which might be suggested at a later date. Photographs are also useful for jogging the investigator's memory at the time of writing the report or before appearing in court. Also in extremely dark fire scenes the photographs could provide detail which may not be available using torch light.

A conclusion made by the investigator which is well supported by photographs can often lead to a guilty plea or, in a civil case, settlement of an issue without trial. The photograph provides a pictorial representation which is easily understood and evaluated in the context of the average viewer's experience, as most people are able to interpret what they can see. In a report, the investigator should provide at least one or two photographs wherever possible to support each observation he or she wishes to state. The photographs should be numbered and captioned and referred to as "Photograph 1,2 etc". A plan should also be made showing the view angles of each photograph or alternatively the photographs should be presented in a sequence which will provide some type of continuity to allow the reader to determine the view angle of each one.

In former times an investigator needed to have considerable photographic skills to produce quality evidence suitable for use in court. Producing photographs at a fire scene which is normally dark, drab and often dangerous was a difficult task as the photographer had to read and adjust the camera settings in torch light and if all went well the investigator found out several days after the inspection what technical aspect of the exercise had been overlooked.

Today with the advent of automatic cameras equipped with automatic focusing and exposure control, investigators can leave the fire scene knowing most of the technical aspects of the exercise have been adequately addressed through the wonders of computer control, modern technology and optics. Rather than discussing the technical aspects of fire scene photography which can normally be addressed by reading the manual supplied with an automatic camera, this article will concentrate on the subjective aspect of photographing the fire scene, that is not how to photograph at the fire scene, but what to photograph. The article gives hints and general guide lines to follow as every fire is different and the investigator should adjust his or her emphasis of the subject matter accordingly.

1. PHOTOGRAPHING THE EXTERIOR

The exterior of the building should be photographed from all sides or at least two opposite corners to show the overall degree of fire damage and the locations of the various entrances and windows. The location of the building to neighbouring buildings or fire fighting access areas should also be made apparent, as well as any objects which may be material to the circumstances of the fire, such as the location of nearby power poles. The investigator may need to prove at a later date the fire had not spread from such an outside source. Evidence of tyre tracks, footprints and the location of explosion debris should also be photographed to show their relationship with the building and they should be photographed in close detail, as well as from a distance.

The exterior photographs generally shows the nature and material of construction and the locations of the doors, windows, chimneys, flues, electricity fuse box or gas meter. The openings where the fire vented are usually clearly shown in the exterior photographs.

If the fire started inside a building near an exterior wall or in a roof cavity the area of fire origin can often be determined from studying the heat or burn patterns on the exterior of the window frames, wall or roof. Exterior burn patterns are generally easier to interpret than the equivalent interior burn pattern as they generally provide good colour and texture contrast, and are less affected by smoke.

Panoramic views are valuable in reports as they provide in great detail an overall view of the scene. They can be produced by joining together a sequence of photographs or by using a wide angled lens or a disposable camera equipped with a wide angled lens. These disposable cameras are now widely available and can be purchased for $15-20 from most camera shops . The investigator should seriously consider carrying one in the car, as a sequence of panoramic photographs of a large fire scene significantly enhances a report.

Overhead shots of the fire scene should be taken if access can be made through the use of a ladder, cherry picker or a nearby building. The overhead shot provides the viewer with an idea of the plan of the building and can be used as a reference by the viewer to determine the location of objects shown in later photographs. In large warehouse fires where the structure collapses sequentially as a response to the spread of the fire, an overhead shot is invaluable for showing the manner in which the structural members have collapsed. If photographs of the actual fire can be obtained from eyewitnesses or media sources then they should be included in the report.

2. PHOTOGRAPHING THE INTERIOR

Photographs of the interior of a building are generally more difficult for the viewer to interpret than the exterior photographs as the interior surfaces are usually burnt and covered with a layer of soot, and the viewer is generally unfamiliar with such an environment . A good quality flash unit is essential as the photographs need to provide as much detail as possible to allow the viewer to familiarise themselves with the nature of the damage and possibly the identity and purpose of the room before the fire.

All rooms and areas inside the building affected by the fire should be photographed, and the photographs should be sequentially presented in a report from the areas of least damage to the areas of greatest damage, or to the area of fire origin, if this is not the area of greatest damage. Photographs of the peripheral areas where the fire had not originated should be presented and discussed first in a report so these areas can be eliminated from further discussion.

When photographing each room the walls, ceilings and doorways should be shown and, unless a wide angled lens is used, several photographs of each room may be needed. A prominent object such as a fireplace or a large appliance can be used as a reference point in sequential photographs to allow the viewer to maintain their perspective and their familiarisation with the fire scene. The investigator must bear in mind the reader of a report is often untrained in fire investigation and the photographs must comfortably take the reader through the fire scene. If the reader feels comfortable with the fire scene then hopefully they will feel comfortable with the conclusions the investigator is trying to make. If the reader gets lost at the fire scene then the investigator has failed to present a complete report and the reader will lose interest and could possibly be easily swayed to accept alternative arguments.

The area of fire origin should be photographed before excavation has commenced and again photographed during excavation, if the process has yielded points of interest. The floor should be cleaned so a photograph can be taken to show the nature of the flooring materials. If the floor has completely combusted and a nearby wall has survived then the original floor level can be marked on the wall through the use of a string and some chalk, and the chalk line photographed.

At areas where an accelerant is suspected the areas of localised damage to the floor as well as the overhead damage should be photographed. The amount of overhead damage should be well documented by photographs as the continued combustion at floor level of combustible materials which, have fallen from above could account for the localised damage at floor level. If debris samples are taken then the sample container should be numbered or labelled and the container photographed at the point of sampling.

The burn patterns at doorways should be photographed to show the spread of the fire between rooms. The burn patterns on the walls in hallways normally show the room from which the fire originated and the direction of spread of the fire.

If appliances are suspected of causing the fire they should be photographed from a distance and in close up in the location where they were found, The remains should then be taken outside to allow closer inspection and so that they can be photographed in sunlight or later in the laboratory.

3. POINTS OF ENTRY AND SECURITY OF BUILDING

Fire Brigade personnel will usually give an account of the security of a building as they found it. In many cases their accounts will need to be verified at each point of entry by an inspection of the burn patterns and soot deposits to surfaces around the point of entry, and an examination for tool marks.

If possible the doors should be first photographed in the position in which they were found. If the door was found closed then both sides of the door should be photographed. The burn patterns and soot deposits around the door and the door frame should be photographed as they normally ascertain the position of the door at the time of the fire. Any parts of the door or lock which may have been dislodged as a result of some type of forced entry should be photographed at the location where they were found and later reconstructed at their original position. Photographs of the door jamb may also be vital.

The position of the windows at the time of the fire should also be determined and the evidence used for such an evaluation should be photographed. The position of the window frames and in the case of a sliding aluminium window, the position of the falling glass could both indicate the position of the window at the time of the fire. The smoke and heat patterns above a window can also indicate the position of the window at the time of the fire. The window locks should also be recovered and photographed.

4. CAR FIRES

If possible the remains of burnt cars should be photographed at the scene and the surrounding area should also be photographed. A fire where the car has burnt in an isolated area can usually be regarded as being deliberately lit. Conversely a fire where the car has burnt in view of independent witnesses can normally be regarded as being accidental in nature. If the car has been transported to a wrecking yard then attempts should be made to examine the original scene as evidence such as petrol trail residues or bonfires which were originally under the car can sometimes be found.

The exterior of the car should ideally be photographed from all sides and then again with the bonnet and doors opened. Cars generally have three compartments being the engine, passenger and boot compartments and all three compartments should be examined and photographed.

The engine and the underside of the bonnet should be photographed and parts such as the fuel line connection, air filter, carburettor, radiator and associated hoses, exhaust manifold, battery, terminals and electrical wiring looms photographed in detail. For comparison, a photograph of the same engine from an unburnt car can be shown next to that of the burnt engine and the major parts of the engine labelled.

A good overall view of the passenger compartment can normally be made by kneeling on the bonnet or the boot and photographing the seats, doors and dashboard. Such a photograph can often show the area of severest fire damage which is generally the area of fire origin as cars have a relatively uniform distribution of naturally available fuel such as plastics.

The window winding mechanisms, window glass and the smoke deposits on the hinges can establish the status of the windows and doors at the time of the fire and should be photographed. Any damage which may indicate the car had been stolen should be photographed.

5. THE CLINCHER

I'm sure every investigator has a collection of photographs which go a long way to determining the cause of a fire. Below are two photographs I believe could be correctly termed "A Clincher" and I'll leave it to the viewer to reason why. Perhaps other readers would like to share some of their memorable photographs.

Photograph APhotograph B
Photograph A Photograph B
WAREHOUSE FIRE CAR ENGINE FIRE

MORE ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHS A & B

Photograph A was taken in a large disused warehouse which was frequented by vandals. Three suspects were arrested after a large blaze in the far end of the warehouse. Their defence was based upon a story that the fire began accidentally while they were skylarking. The photograph shows a wall approximately 50 meters from the main seat of fire where a second seat of fire was located. At the second seat of fire the smoke deposits on the wall which originated from the large seat of fire had burnt indicating there were two entirely unconnected seats of fire which burnt simultaneously. The defendant's story of an accidental fire could not be believed.

Photograph B shows the radiator hose from a car whose engine had erupted in fire while being driven through a small country shopping centre. The elderly occupants explained they had the car regularly serviced and drove to town only once a week. The unusual damage to the exterior of the hose could only have been made by a deliberate cut or by a gnawing animal. The burnt remains of a rat's nest comprising of snail shells, twigs, grass and rat droppings was found nearby on the heat shield above the exhaust manifold. The rats had chewed through the exterior of the hose and the interior sheathing then fractured as a result of pressure causing the engine to overheat and ignite the rat's nest. The photograph reveals the cause of the fire - a true "Clincher".