To catch an arsonist: How fire investigators find leads and deal with challenges

RCMP say the fire that destroyed at least eight Lake Country homes last month was deliberately set.

KELOWNA – This week’s Knox Mountain fire shows just how easy it is to start a fire, and just how difficult it is to catch those responsible for purposely setting them.

Kelowna RCMP lead investigator Const. Kevin Hamilton acknowledges that catching arsonists can be difficult, but perhaps not as difficult as you might think. As an example, arsonists tend to share some traits or motivations with each other. That can get even more specific — people who set wildfires tend to differ from those who set structure fires.

That's not a bad place to start: It usually comes down to either potential financial gain, he says, or simple excitement of the chaos they cause.

“We had a volunteer fireman arrested a few years ago,” Hamilton says. “They light a fire then they get called out, get to fight it and either get paid money or they get to build up their CV.

“Excitement is another common one. You light a fire and then you sit back and watch the airshow. Watch the trucks roll in and the guys running around like mad trying to put up guards and then you’ve got the bombers and choppers coming in.”

Hamilton says there are also isolated incidents, often caused by mental illness, like the man who used a blow torch on some grass beside Highway 97 last week. That man is in police custody but RCMP are still trying to find the suspects who set the Knox Mountain fire and the Okanagan Centre fire less than two weeks before.

Both have been declared arson and police are actively investigating.

Air support was brought in from Kamloops to help knock down a grass fire police say was started deliberately on Knox Mountain July 30, 2017.
Air support was brought in from Kamloops to help knock down a grass fire police say was started deliberately on Knox Mountain July 30, 2017.

Chaos, Hamilton says, is usually the first obstacle investigators have to overcome when they arrive on the scene. Witnesses must be identified and interviewed and evidence collected, but the majority of the work is done simply by looking at the scene.

“Wildland fires are different from structure and vehicle fires because you’re basically looking for the area of least fire damage. In a structure or vehicle fire, you look at areas with the most damage because that’s where it burnt the longest,” he says.

“Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s a nice ‘V’ pattern coming from wherever it started but a lot of times it’s not and you’ve got to look at a lot of indicators, talk to witnesses, talk to fire crew because they’re usually first on site. Then using everything you learn you put it all together and typically find the area of fire origin.”

B.C. Wildfire fire prevention officer Gayanne Pacholzuk has been fighting fires for the province for 20 years. She says police are involved whenever they’ve ruled out a natural or accidental ignition.

“(B.C. Wildfire investigators) rarely go to the fire scene when it’s on fire. Sometimes we do get called when it’s on fire for taking pictures or interviewing people that might be around but anything suspicious is the RCMP’s jurisdiction.”

For Pacholzuk, investigations are both art and science, and always require a lot of patience.

“Things can lead you off trail as well. If it’s a real hot, fast fire that destroyed everything, it’s a needle in a haystack.”

The toll a wildfire takes on the community is profound, Hamilton says, and cases like Knox Mountain and Okanagan Centre are a top priority for police.

“The Knox Mountain fire for example, had there been a wind that day, that fire probably would have ripped up the mountainside and gotten into Magic Estates, where there is only one road in and out. There are probably 400 or 500 houses in there. We would have had a hell of a time evacuating all those people,” he says.

“The worst case scenario is the fire would have went in there and killed people but it takes an emotional toll as well. One moment everything is fine and the next moment the police are out on the street evacuating the area and an hour later your house is gone.”

If you have any information about either the Knox Mountain or Okanagan Centre arson, contact the RCMP at 250-762 3300 or Crimestoppers at 1-800-222-8477.


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