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Arson Science Rewritten

Zonk posted more than 7 years ago | from the tis-the-season-burn-burn-burn dept.

The Courts 152

An anonymous reader handed us a link to an AP story about advances in the science of arson investigation. Many assumptions about fire, long held by investigators, have been overturned in recent years as scientists have come to understand concepts like 'flashover'. The repercussions of these findings is having an effect not unlike the use of DNA in crime-solving; people are being set free, and old cases are being re-examined. From the article: "Significantly, flashover can create very hot and very fast-moving fires. And it can occur within just a few minutes, dashing the concept that only arson fires fueled by accelerants can quickly rage out of control. The studies began to chip away at the old beliefs -- critics call them myths -- but it took years. Through the 1980s, texts at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., still taught the traditional techniques. It wasn't until 1992, when a guide to fire investigations by the National Fire Protection Association -- 'NFPA921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations' -- clearly laid out, in a document relied upon by authorities nationwide, that the earlier beliefs were wrong."

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Toner (-1, Offtopic)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 7 years ago | (#17181710)

...from laser printers is usually labelled to warn you to keep it away from flame. Since it is basically fine carbon dust with a high ratio or surface area to volume have often wondered exactly how good an explosive it would make.

How good an explosive it would make (1)

nethole (126708) | more than 7 years ago | (#17181866)

"Just sayin'"

Great (0, Flamebait)

mnemonic_ (164550) | more than 7 years ago | (#17181936)

That has nothing to do with the article.

Re:Toner (1)

Lehk228 (705449) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182410)

pack it around another explosive such as a quarter stick of dynamite and you should get a hell of a show

Re:Toner (1)

ArsenneLupin (766289) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183050)

pack it around another explosive such as a quarter stick of dynamite and you should get a hell of a show
The trick is actually to use two priming charges rather than just one, spaced by a couple of milliseconds. The first will spread the toner in a cloud of dust. And the second will ignite the cloud, resulting in quite an impressive bang...


And works with almost any fine powders too (flour, ...)!

If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17181722)

you would be skeptical about the need for "accelerants". If you've ever seen a fire move through a room, it can go from a small area to engulfing the entire thing in less than a minute without any help from gasoline etc. I'm pretty sure that what happens is that the heat from the small fire vaporizes ordinary non-volatile things, like household furnishings or materials, and those vapors then act as the accelerant.

I know there was a case a few years ago where an "arsonist" in TX was executed for having killed his family, and within less than a year it was established that he was innocent.

I'll just say, the idea of someone being executed based on expert testimony from arson investigators, who are not even scientists, is appalling. Experts are only right until some new piece of knowledge comes along and changes the field.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (5, Funny)

Swimport (1034164) | more than 7 years ago | (#17181778)

I know there was a case a few years ago where an "arsonist" in TX was executed for having killed his family, and within less than a year it was established that he was innocent.

What? An innocent man was executed in Texas? I highly doubt that.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (3, Funny)

EugeneK (50783) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183110)

My sarcasm detector just crashed with an overflow error.

I can already tell (4, Funny)

Somatic (888514) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182112)

that this thread will turn into a flame war.

Re:I can already tell (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17182866)

screw you

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (5, Insightful)

failure-man (870605) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182330)

This is why the entire civilized world (rest of?) has done away with the death penalty. If (and when) the criminal justice system fucks up you can't just go "Oops, sorry dude. Ctrl-Z on killing you." Imprisoning them for years by mistake is terrible, but at least you can let them out.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (1)

TheLink (130905) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183998)

That said, might not be such a great thing to just let someone out after many decades when they are 70+ years old with near zero savings in a country with not much welfare, without helping to take care of them.

Even if they have relatives.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (4, Insightful)

MasterC (70492) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182494)

Experts are only right until some new piece of knowledge comes along and changes the field.
Yeah, it's called the scientific method [wikipedia.org] . It's a bitch, ain't it?

What you didn't mention is that new evidence can come along and solidify a field. Just because the scientific method can disprove preconceived theories doesn't negate the power of science, which is what I read that you are implying. At least toward evidence for a death penalty, but if you believe that you cannot rely on science then what can you rely upon?

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17182788)

Exactly. There is *nothing* you can rely on sufficiently for a death penalty conviction, even setting aside moral issues with state sanctioned killing.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17182792)

Just because the scientific method can disprove preconceived theories doesn't negate the power of science, which is what I read that you are implying. At least toward evidence for a death penalty, but if you believe that you cannot rely on science then what can you rely upon?

What it appears he's saying is that, given that long-held scientific beliefs can and are overturned but killing someone cannot be overturned, perhaps scientific evidence isn't enough to justify killing someone who isn't presenting an immediate threat.

Mod parent up (1)

fantomas (94850) | more than 7 years ago | (#17185012)

well said. Nicely argued, concise.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (2, Insightful)

norton_I (64015) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182836)

The article made it clear that the "old" rules about fire progression were not based on scientific study. Simple observation is the beginning of scientific investigation, but it is not itself scientific investigation.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (2, Insightful)

timeOday (582209) | more than 7 years ago | (#17184902)

The problem is separating fact from conventional wisdom. Almost all of what we as individuals "know" is what we've heard from other people. There just isn't time for every person to reproduce all of human knowlege from first principles. Raise your hand if you believe e=mc^2. Now raise your hand if you can derive it from first principles (or even list the "first principles" in question). People do not (and perhaps cannot) track all the uncertainty of their knowledge, and their conclusions from that knowledge, all the way down to decision making, except perhaps within a very narrow specialty.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (1)

rohan972 (880586) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183128)

but if you believe that you cannot rely on science then what can you rely upon?

Speaking strictly of evidence for court cases: eyewitness testimony, together with a requirement that if someone is found to have lied, they get the same penalty the accused would have if found guilty.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (1)

temcat (873475) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183502)

Death penalty for a liar won't return the wrongly sentenced to life.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (0, Troll)

evilviper (135110) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182782)

I know there was a case a few years ago where an "arsonist" in TX was executed for having killed his family, and within less than a year it was established that he was innocent.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in the US, there hasn't been a single case where an executed man has later been proven innocent. Even the most fervent anti-death penalty advocates don't dispute that simple fact. All claims that suggest so, are based on pure speculation.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (2, Insightful)

c6gunner (950153) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182846)

Well, technically, once a person is executed it becomes impossible to "prove" his innocence because no further trial will ever be conducted. It's rather pointless to put a corpse in the defendants chair.

On the other hand, you're right. While there are a few cases of people on death row being proven innocent, and many more cases of death row inmates having their sentence commuted, there has never been a case of significant evidence coming to light of an inmates innocence after he had already been executed. This is largely due to the massive appeal process which every death row inmate goes through.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (3, Informative)

Hektor_Troy (262592) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183254)

Ah, yes. I always seem to forget, that evidence that completely exhonorates someone, is never "significant evidence".

Of course, the ACLU seems to think differently [aclu.org] :

Frank Lee Smith, Florida
Convicted 1985; cleared (after death) in 2000

Mr. Smith was convicted of the rape and murder of a child. After the trial and sentencing the chief witness recanted her testimony. But Smith nevertheless was scheduled for execution. He died of cancer in January 2000, while on death row before the completion of the DNA test results that proved his innocence ten months later.
Now obviously, being cleared 15 years after your first conviction doesn't count. Nor does having the chief witness recanting their testimony.

But who cares. It's not like it was important, right? After all, he was a filthy child raping murderer, who deserved what he got.

Oh, wait.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (1)

c6gunner (950153) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183416)

Uh. He died of cancer. Did you not bother to read the bit you quoted? Or are you of the opinion that we now execute criminals by giving them cancer? How exactly would that work? Make them smoke a carton of cigarettes every day for a decade or so?

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (1)

moogleii (704303) | more than 7 years ago | (#17184604)

Uh, the key point was not that he died of cancer, that was an aside. The key point was that they kept him on schedule for execution. He died of cancer, while still being on death row.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (1)

c_forq (924234) | more than 7 years ago | (#17185148)

Umm... if you read what you quoted the results saying he was innocent didn't come out until 10 months after he died.

The fault lies with the perjuring witness... (0, Troll)

mosel-saar-ruwer (732341) | more than 7 years ago | (#17184458)


Now obviously, being cleared 15 years after your first conviction doesn't count. Nor does having the chief witness recanting their testimony.

I don't know the first thing about the case, and, given that your source of "information" seems to be the American Communist Liberties Union, I wouldn't trust a single aspect of your recounting of the facts of the case, but, if we assume for the sake of argument that "the chief witness" recanted her [or his] testimony, then the fault here lies not with The People of the State of Florida [i.e. the prosecution], BUT RATHER WITH "THE CHIEF WITNESS" WHO PERJURED HER- [OR HIM-] SELF!!!

Human courts are only as good as the human witnesses who choose to honor [or dishonor] their oaths to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

If we are a nation of liars, who dishonor our sacred [well, really secular [bartleby.com] ] oaths, then we will get the court systems we deserve.

Re:The fault lies with the perjuring witness... (1)

Mr. Slippery (47854) | more than 7 years ago | (#17184692)

Human courts are only as good as the human witnesses who choose to honor [or dishonor] their oaths to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Hi there! Welcome to Planet Earth.

Here, human beings lie all the damn time.

Courts and prosecutors have a responsibility to deal with that reality. Certainly the uncertainity injected into all proceedings by that fact is yet another reason why the state should not commit homicide of people it thinks are killers.

Re:The fault lies with the perjuring witness... (1)

mosel-saar-ruwer (732341) | more than 7 years ago | (#17184728)


Courts and prosecutors have a responsibility to deal with that reality. Certainly the uncertainity injected into all proceedings by that fact is yet another reason why the state should not commit homicide of people it thinks are killers.

If you must posit, as an hypothesis, that we are a nation of liars, then any further discusssion is moot.

Necessarily liberty can flourish only amongst men of good will; conversely, it will always wither and die when granted to liars and thieves.

Re:The fault lies with the perjuring witness... (1)

Mr. Slippery (47854) | more than 7 years ago | (#17185028)

If you must posit, as an hypothesis, that we are a nation of liars, then any further discusssion is moot.

A nation of liars? No, we are a species of liars. Every human being will tell at least one deliberate untruth during his or her life. Some will tell many more. People involved in criminal investigations often have a great motivation to lie - and in that I include cops and prosecutors who "know in their gut" that the accused in guilty and believe they're serving the people by lying.

Necessarily liberty can flourish only amongst men of good will; conversely, it will always wither and die when granted to liars and thieves.

I'm saddened that you don't think liberty is possible just because human beings are imperfect.

Indeed, many lies are created exactly because of a lack of liberty. People are compelled to lie about drug use (including underage drinking and smoking), consensual sexual activities, minor violations of the more stupid and annoying tax and zoning and traffic laws; the tighter the laws get, the more people have to lie just to get by. Liars and thieves will flourish when liberty is denied.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (1)

shadwstalkr (111149) | more than 7 years ago | (#17185372)

It's rather pointless to put a corpse in the defendants chair.

Not to mention quite messy, and don't even get me started on the stench! Besides, everyone knows that corpses refuse to raise their right hands and swear to tell the truth.

Or maybe it's because: (1)

Johnny Mnemonic (176043) | more than 7 years ago | (#17185574)


Well, technically, once a person is executed it becomes impossible to "prove" his innocence because no further trial will ever be conducted. It's rather pointless to put a corpse in the defendants chair...

there has never been a case of significant evidence coming to light of an inmates innocence after he had already been executed

There has never been a case of innocence of an executed prisoner, because the process for determining that evidence is abandoned--perhaps it's because it's pointless, and perhaps it's because those that profit (politically) from execution of prisoners have no reason desire to see themselves proven wrong.

Of course there's a reason to put a corpse in the defendant's chair: to verify our methods of investigation so that other innocent victims can be spared.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17183574)

That's a helluva claim. Anytime someone says 'Even X don't dispute Y', combined with the pejorative language of 'that simple fact', my BS detector goes wild. It sure is handy; tell them they can't dispute it before they even try.

Where's your reference?

How about Jesse Tafero? A cause celebre, without a doubt, but will you allow us to have a dialogue on it before you dismiss it out of hand, oh great seer of truth?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesse_Tafero [wikipedia.org]

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (1)

evilviper (135110) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183612)

It's funny that the truth gets modded "-1 troll", while an idiot that is completely off-topic and doesn't even read what he's quoted gets modded up to +4.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (1)

dbIII (701233) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183030)

I'll just say, the idea of someone being executed based on expert testimony from arson investigators, who are not even scientists,

It's the Tom Clancy fantasy of the competant but uneducated expert who has picked everything up by osmosis without making any mistakes and never listens to anyone else - people think this sort of thing is real. I'm willing to bet the arson investigators in the US are not that bad and send things off for lab testing to get results from people that are experts in each thing or get some advice on heat transfer when they are not sure. After a while they will be educated by this and will be able to identify complex things without help and have as good an understanding as anybody exactly why things happen in a lot of circumstances.

As an engineer and materials scientist I had a role in one fire investigation - fortunately it was very easy despite one guy being very serious about it being due to spontaneous combustion of the particle board which had been exposed to heat over years, which only makes sense on a very large scale according to previous fires (the hot wet big haystack thing happens to huge piles of recently manufactured or rotting chipboard).

well, it's Texas we're talking about (0, Troll)

misanthrope101 (253915) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183762)

I'm reminded of that old racist saying about Asian countries--they just don't value life the same way we do. Only rather than some unspecified Asian country, it's Texas, and unlike the racist generalization, this one happens to be true. They just don't value life the way civilized places do. If the executed is black, they don't care at all. If the executed is white, then they care a little bit, but nothing more vehement than "it's a damned shame." You could have 10 consecutive executions that turned out to be innocent and if the Supreme Court stopped capital punishment, they'd still hate the courts for interfering, and they'd think you threw out the baby with the bathwater. Even adjusting for my latent misanthropy, there is something rotten in the culture of that state.

Re:well, it's Texas we're talking about (1)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | more than 7 years ago | (#17184294)

Let me see - if you say it about Asian countries, it's racist. If you say it about Texas, then it's not bigoted?

Re:well, it's Texas we're talking about (1)

moogleii (704303) | more than 7 years ago | (#17184644)

Hence, the misanthropy.

Re:If you've ever seen how fast a fire moves... (1)

teflaime (738532) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183986)

I'll just say, the idea of someone being executed based on expert testimony from arson investigators, who are not even scientists, is appalling. Experts are only right until some new piece of knowledge comes along and changes the field.

You are grossly misinformed. Most professional arson investigators are fire fighters who have been extensively trained in fire sciences. In fact, to be accorded official status as an arson investigator in many states, you must complete an extensive training course in fire sciences, including extensive work at the National Fire Academy.
Fire sciences are continually evolving. Modern manufacturing materials have changed the facts of fire science. Where we once didn't have materials that could flash over in common use in the household, we now see them as the norm. This is a change from as recently as 20 years ago. Now, for instance, both the foam they use to make your furniture more comfortable and the Scotchguard they use to protect the fabric from stains also make your furniture more likely to cause your death if they ever catch fire, based on both the noxious fumes they produce and the increased likely hood that they might cause some volatile fire reaction.

But the prosecutors were so CERTAIN I was guilty! (2, Interesting)

Catbeller (118204) | more than 7 years ago | (#17181796)

And Jay Leno made jokes about me getting set on fire in prison. And all the inmates were so aglow with inner certainty as I was gang raped to death. Gosh, I guess no harm, no foul.

-signed, dead guy who was obviously guilty

Re:But the prosecutors were so CERTAIN I was guilt (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17182094)

Which moron modded this redundant?

Re:But the prosecutors were so CERTAIN I was guilt (1)

MillionthMonkey (240664) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182294)

Bad form to reply to the moderators as an AC.

Re:But the prosecutors were so CERTAIN I was guilt (1)

chawly (750383) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182478)

Probably somebody with Mod Points, you insensitive clod

Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (5, Informative)

dsci (658278) | more than 7 years ago | (#17181818)

I used to be a volunteer firefighter and also served as a fire investigator. My experience began around 1981 or so; later (late 90s), I worked for a Police Department doing crime scene work and part of that was fire investigation.

From TFA:

Up until the 1990s, this is what fire investigators were taught:

Fires always burn up, not down.


I was NEVER taught that; just the opposite. Fires tend to burn up FASTER than they burn down, but geez, anyone who has ever actually WATCHED a fire burn knows this statement is nonsense.

Fires that burn very fast are fueled by accelerants; "normal" fires burn slowly.

I was NEVER taught that; just the opposite. We were taught that accelerates were ONE WAY a fire MIGHT burn faster than you would expect under similar conditions. We were also taught that is EXTREMELY difficult to gauge how fast a fire "should have" burned. I did my first chemical test on fire debris in 1986 using GC/MS via a very simple headspace analysis on a sample that the state lab sent back as negative (my test was positive for something, perhaps ambient artifacts, but was an educational run, not an 'official' test). With the negative test result, we sure did not try to use evidence of 'how fast that fired burned' to assert the presence of an accelerant.

Arsons fueled by accelerants burn hotter than "normal" fires.

Somebody is oversimplifying the concept of "fire load" here. There are a WHOLE LOT of things than can make a fire burn hotter than 'normal.' In fact, as a common theme I am trying to represent, "normal" is not a well defined term for real-world fires. Rural firefighters and investigators certainly knew this before 1992.

In fact, this statement glosses over another issue about arson - they often, quite often, don't involve 'accelerants' at all.

The clues to arson are clear. Burn holes on the floor indicate multiple points of origin. Finely cracked glass (called "crazed glass") proves a hotter-than-normal fire. So does the collapse of the springs in bedding or furniture, and the appearance of large blisters on charred wood, known as "alligatoring."

The clues to arson are clear?? Man, I clearly remember in the early 1980's being taught exactly the OPPOSITE of what this article says was the "norm" back then. Perhaps it was taught somewhere, but not in RURAL North Carolina. Absolutely NONE of these "clues" are evidence of arson - only of certain fire conditions.

What we were taught in our arson investigation classes, and what I came to learn through experience, is that arson was/is and EXTREMELY difficult crime to prove. That means it is difficult to prove that a fire was arson, much less who did it.

Truthfully, based on my experience, I don't see the point of this article. It asserts 'beliefs' about fire investigation pre-1992 that just are not true.

And finally, the article gives the tragic story of the Lee family that occured in 1989. While presenting NONE of the evidence that was used to convict him, the story creates the straw man that just because it was 1989 and fire investigation changed (around then, according to the article), he must be framed. I don't know of his guilt or innocence, but that's a might big leap of logic.

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (2, Insightful)

shawn(at)fsu (447153) | more than 7 years ago | (#17181864)

Fires always burn up, not down.
That comment made me think, I've heard it countless times on TV shows etc. Right now I just thought about how many times I've burnt my fingers holding a lit match.

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (1)

Joebert (946227) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182186)

I don't know weather to think this is insightfull because of the mechanics involved, or funny because you keep burning yourself.

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (1)

strider44 (650833) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182188)

Of course it burns up, not down. That's why you see so many houses getting only their top floor burnt to a crisp with the lower floor totally untouched!

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (1)

NonSequor (230139) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182206)

You can't argue with actors portraying arson investigators! Obviously you must have been holding the match upside down.

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (3, Funny)

Breakfast Pants (323698) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182238)

But *YOU* lit the match. Therefore it was arson, and of course it burnt down. Can you even read?

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (5, Funny)

JustOK (667959) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183320)

I'm betting they were Australian matches. They burn down in this hemisphere, but up down under.

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (4, Interesting)

blackdropbear (554444) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182072)

Its also interesting that flash over may not be confined to restricted sapces like rooms. I have heard of similar effects occuring in the late 1960's in a very hot eucalypt fire. The gases boiling out from the eucalypt fire were trapped by an air inversion until eventualy the whole valley ignited and erupted in a ball of flame.

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (2, Interesting)

willpall (632050) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182574)

I believe you're talking about the Loop Fire [fireleadership.gov] . There are some interesting articles on it at that site [fireleadership.gov] as well.

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (0, Offtopic)

EvanTaylor (532101) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183976)

I'm sorry, I saw your sig and just had to laugh. I'm a libertarian myself, but I do find the humor in that amusing.

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (1)

Breakfast Pants (323698) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182258)

Arson science is so advanced; it can tell the difference between a cigarette inadvertantly thrown in the trash and one purposefully thrown in. I heard they get psychic investigators to do the actual analysis.

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (1)

Dun Malg (230075) | more than 7 years ago | (#17184318)

Arson science is so advanced; it can tell the difference between a cigarette inadvertantly thrown in the trash and one purposefully thrown in. I heard they get psychic investigators to do the actual analysis.
You know, it's funny, but if there's one thing I've learned from watch all those true crime shows on A&E over the years, it's that most police investigators don't solve crimes by collecting evidence until they have enough to point to the guilty party. On the contrary, they frequently "have a hunch" or "follow their gut" and then badger the suspects until somebody 'fesses up, or someone with a beef with the perpetrator drops a dime on them. Sure, they have all sorts of ways of justifying their "hunches"; my favorite is the reversible combination of "his alibi just didn't make sense" and "his alibi was a little too good". By the end of the show, though, I find myself wondering are there of these cops following their hunches down the wrong path? Obviously the in the cases they made into episodes of American Justice or City Confidential the "hunches" turned out correct... but what about the dozens of others in these cops' careers? For example, I wonder how many borderline retarded folks they've put away by "interrogating" them using the method of "are you sure you didn't kill him? Maybe you don't remember. Sometimes people forget things. Sign this paper and we'll let you go to the bathroom."

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17182282)

Up until the 1990s, this is what fire investigators were taught:

1990s = 1980-1989

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (1)

kripkenstein (913150) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182814)

>> Fires always burn up, not down.

> I was NEVER taught that; just the opposite. Fires tend to burn up FASTER than they burn down, but geez, anyone who has ever actually WATCHED a fire burn knows this statement is nonsense.


Or anyone who watches TV, since they explained that on CSI a few years ago. Perhaps firemen should watch more TV; I know I get all my useful information from there. (Well, sometimes Wikipedia, especially the fast-changing articles, those are the most reliable.)

Re:Hmmm, Not in my training and experience (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 7 years ago | (#17184726)

Bingo. I, too, was a volunteer fire firefighter in the mid 1980's. Flashover (of perfectly natural fires, forest fires, car fires, flame wars) was taught extensively. Anytime you have heat, combustible materials and some oxygen, in a partially enclosed space you can get flashover. Try breaking a window in a smoldering house (without sticking the hose in another one). Poof, flashover.

Arson was a possibility but not a given. The article was pretty bizarre, I couldn't figure out why they're talking about something that changed over a decade a go as news. Are some fire investigators finally reading the manuals from the last decade? I rather doubt it.

Another slow news day, I suppose.

Dammit (1, Funny)

quokkapox (847798) | more than 7 years ago | (#17181836)

It took 18 years to get that freakin song out of my head.

Now, I unleash my revenge:


Einstein, James Dean, Brooklyn's got a winning team
Davy Crockett, "Peter Pan", Elvis Presley, Disneyland

Bwahahahahaha...

Peter Pan (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17183082)

whenever he sees a certain apache chief, he grows wings...

Wooden houses? (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17181922)

Why the heck should all houses in this country be made of wood? Haven't you guys heard of concrete? Or good old bricks? Seriously, this is crazy.

Tha would be good... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17182036)

...if all your furnishings were also made of concrete, brick and cement.

Oh, blows your assertion out the window, you say?

Re:Tha would be good... (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17182106)

All my furnishings are made out of adobe, asshat. Get with times. So is my car; guess I don't have to worry about fire.

http://snltranscripts.jt.org/86/86dadobe.phtml/ [jt.org]

Re:Wooden houses? (3, Insightful)

jbevren (10665) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182102)

Sad thing is, mansonry conducts heat. While some regions might not consider this a problem, try living in a brick house when the temperature drops below 0 farenheight. It can't be fun, so the solution is to build a brick exterior and set up a wooden insulated studwall on the interior.

Besides, what is going to hold up your concrete second floor? Or is it that all houses in your country have no cellars or second floors? The cost of constructing a house made entirely of mortar, brick, and stone is immense. Thus, wooden houses.

In the ideal world, nothing burns. In the real world, even concrete and steel give under fire.
In the ideal world, concrete and metal buildings are as inexpensive as wood. In the real world, this just isn't so.

In Mother Russia, the concrete burns you!

-jbevren

Re:Wooden houses? (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17182200)

On the Pacific coast, very few buildings are built out of brick or masonry, for three important reasons: 1) it's expensive, 2) along much of the Pacific coast there's an abundant supply of wood, and 3) they tend to fall down for reasons entirely unrelated to fire.

Irrespective of what your house is made of, one of the keys to keeping it from burning is a non-flammable roof. Many houses succumb to fire when another fire outside the house (forest fire, nearby building fire, brush fire, etc...) drops flaming material on the roof. If you don't want your house to burn in one of those scenarios, put on a metal roof and keep the trees trimmed back.

Re:Wooden houses? (4, Insightful)

loraksus (171574) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182260)

Pretty much all (Western and Eastern) European home construction is concrete / brick based and this extends through most of Russia and large parts of the rest of the world. Building out of wood is a foreign concept for a large number of people in the world. Many countries don't exactly have huge forests either - nothing like what we enjoy in North America.
Basically Europe is completely deforested. There are forests, sure, but they would be gone pretty quickly if people started building homes out of wood.

As for the engineering aspects - concrete is strong and you can easily drop a concrete slab as the floor on your second story if you use walls of reasonable thickness - or you can use wood flooring suspended on a central beam(s) or one of dozens of other ways that builders use to suspend a floor in a wood house. Very few houses in Europe are only 1 story.

I've seen pre-fabed buildings being put together (and quickly) in Poland and Eastern Europe using both methods - a crane, a few hours and a welder is all it takes to get the structure done since the buildings come on the truck with rebar in place, holes and supports already in the concrete. Pretty cool actually.

Assembling a house out of brick isn't terribly difficult either - many people in Eastern Europe build their own houses, by hand, slowly, after they come back from their day jobs or whatever. Try doing that with wood construction and you'll end up with a crooked house that falls down in a year.

There is also a newer technology under the category of "insulated concrete forms" (ICF) - basically big hollow styrofoam blocks that you assemble like legos and fill with concrete (they have internal structure and rebar holding them together)

A house built with ICF has superior insulating properties (and does a fair job of blocking wifi signals too ;)

Re:Wooden houses? (2, Informative)

tetromino (807969) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182812)

IMHO, the difference in building materials can mostly be explained by the differences in the buildings.

Americans typically live in small, freestanding, single-family houses. For such small buildings, a wood+drywall construction is probably the most cost-efficient, especially considering North America's plentiful supplies of lumber. On the other hand, Europeans tend to live in apartment buildings, which require the use of stronger materials like brick, cinder block, and reinforced concrete.

Unfortunately, these rational choices of construction materials have become cultural values. Thus wealthy Americans are happy to buy enormous mansions made of toothpicks and cardboard, while some Russians I know are spending their meager resources on building small single-family homes out of concrete.

Re:Wooden houses? (1)

Incadenza (560402) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183038)

A house built with ICF has superior insulating properties (and does a fair job of blocking wifi signals too ;)

Indeed, just yesterday there was an article about this in the Dutch papers. More and more people are complaining about dropped GSM reception and no digital TV reception after there houses have been renovated. Where the most striking case is the appartment block where they used aluminium panelling to cover the outer walls.

Re:Wooden houses? (2, Funny)

ArsenneLupin (766289) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183096)

Where the most striking case is the appartment block where they used aluminium panelling to cover the outer walls.

Hey, a tinfoil house!

Re:Wooden houses? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17183106)

Pretty much all (Western and Eastern) European home construction is concrete / brick based and this extends through most of Russia and large parts of the rest of the world.

Well that's true but misleading. Urban areas use concrete and brick, but you'll find plenty of wood construction elsewhere. Europe, in general, has a higher percentage of its population living in urban area than other parts of the world.

Building out of wood is a foreign concept for a large number of people in the world. Many countries don't exactly have huge forests either - nothing like what we enjoy in North America.
Basically Europe is completely deforested. There are forests, sure, but they would be gone pretty quickly if people started building homes out of wood.


Scandinavia has a great lumber export market. And many, if not the majority of houses in Norway and Denmark are wood construction. Offices and apartment buildings are concrete, 'though.

Re:Wooden houses? (3, Interesting)

Sique (173459) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183336)

I wonder why my European parents have a wooden house (wooden frame filled with stone wool and covered with wooden planks, built in 1998), why their neighbours save one have also wooden frame houses, the oldest one being from 1654 (yeah, that's more than 350 years ago), why 25% of Germany's area is covered by forests, why Europe is in fact increasing its forest area, why towns like Quedlinburg or Erfurt are declared UNESCO cultural inheritance for their timber frame town centres, where all those pittoresce Black Forest and Bavarian rural houses come from, why we talk about "balconies" (which is just the german word Balken = timber).

Wood is a very common material in residential construction in Germany, and in fact its usage has increased with the larger number of prebuilt houses being built here.

Re:Wooden houses? (1)

ramsun (62627) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182316)

Besides, what is going to hold up your concrete second floor? Or is it that all houses in your country have no cellars or second floors? The cost of constructing a house made entirely of mortar, brick, and stone is immense. Thus, wooden houses.

This must be a regional thing. It's exactly the opposite in India, for example. Wooden houses (or at least wood paneled and floored houses) are for the rich, and the middle class live in concrete boxes. And yes, second, third and whatever floors are reinforced concrete, cast in situ. It takes a long while to build, especially in wet places, because the form has to be made, the concrete poured and cured. What holds it up are the rcc pillars and beams.

Sometimes the walls are also poured concrete, though nowadays they tend to be hollow concrete blocks. Makes it hell to deploy wireless networking - you need routers in every room.

RS

Re:Wooden houses? (2, Insightful)

kanweg (771128) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182580)

In the Netherlands, most houses are concrete/brick based. And they are very energy efficient, because there are two walls, the space between them being filled with insulating foam.

Bert

Ever went in West Europe ? (1)

aepervius (535155) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182598)

I would be hard pressed to find a recent building (less than 200 years old) which is not in cut stone, concrete, brick, or parpaing (concrete already made in the form of a big brick with a empty room in the middle). Sure there are *some* wood house, for example in some region near the german/french frontier, old house which are built with wooden raster and some sort of filling, generally they are "kept" as historical heritage. Maybe also those garden pavillion. But the rest , the bulk, is definitively not in wood. I also suspect that in many part of the developping world, it is easier to deliver 2 tons of concrete to build a house than 2 tons of woods, at least the place where I visited, where the people were not living in slums out of metal sheets, they were living in concrete houses or high rise.

Actually is there many country which in the recent years build anything out of wood in mass except canada/US ?

Re:Wooden houses?... stone houses (1)

Numen (244707) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183186)

I live in Tenerife, a Spanish territory off the West coast of Africa... Houses here are all block and concrete, with tiled floors. The floors are poured concrete too.

Back in the UK most houses are built out of brick with wooden floors, but more modern buildings tend to have an absence of wood. In the UK however floors tend to be carpeted. There's not a problem with brick walls as they're all made of two walls with insulating in the middle, so they're actually quite warm in the winter.

For me, a chap from England living in Spain I'm not sure I've ever been in an all wooden structure bigger than a garden shed in my entire life.

Re:Wooden houses? (1)

pjt33 (739471) | more than 7 years ago | (#17185184)

Besides, what is going to hold up your concrete second floor?
Steel-reinforced concrete.
The cost of constructing a house made entirely of mortar, brick, and stone is immense.
Ten to twenty thousand USD in Ecuador. Of course, materials and labour are both more expensive in the US, but I still suspect that the land is the real expense.

Re:Wooden houses? (1)

zptao (979069) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182274)

If you want your house to collapse in the first mid-major earthquake to occur, you'll build it with rock.

Re:Wooden houses? (1)

ArsenneLupin (766289) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183102)

If you want your house to collapse in the first mid-major earthquake to occur, you'll build it with rock.
If you want your house to collapse in the first mid-major tropical storm to occur, you'll build it with wood and cardboard.

More info on the Cameron Todd Willingham Case (0, Troll)

loraksus (171574) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182078)

Really, though, what did you expect from Texas?

Link [chicagotribune.com]

The only people in the case with a conscience are the jurors, the prosecutor and the judge had no qualms. That's not really a surprise though, not too many defense attorneys become judges. In fact, the more people you imprison as a prosecutor, the better your chance to become a judge or hold public office - this combined with prosecutorial immunity - and the fact that charges are rarely filed against prosecutors who engage in clearly illegal behavior such as destroying evidence - is why the legal system in the USA is so fucked up.

And, as you can clearly see, the idiots on the juries on each and every single one of these cases ate the bullshit the prosecution's expert witness threw at them. The lack of funding to defense attorneys by the state ensures that the prosecution's witness is the only one your average jury will see. And because most juries are composed of people who have barely completed what passes for a "high school education" in this country, the will smile and nod their head and convict you.

USA! USA! USA!

Re:More info on the Cameron Todd Willingham Case (1)

Don Negro (1069) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182156)

As a seventh-generation Texan*, I expect a hell of a lot more.

*On the Anglo side; no one ever counts the Comanche...

Re:More info on the Cameron Todd Willingham Case (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17182466)

Nancy Grace is enough to make me suspicious of all prosecutors. What a self-righteous tool. Although she does seem to have a soft spot for women she finds attractive.

A prosecutor's comments (1)

Harmonious Botch (921977) | more than 7 years ago | (#17184748)

I passed the parent on to a friend of mine who happens to be a DA with 20+ years experience in a major southern California jurisdiction. I got the following reply:

1. Prosecutors who do things like destroy evidence get fired and disbarred. Even in Texas. There are canons of ethics, business codes and bar rules for every jurisdiction, that impose on prosecutors the duty to "do justice", representing the interests of all the residents of the jurisdiction, including the accused. Do individual prosecutors occasionally cheat? Sure, but when they get caught (see below for appeals)they give their office a black eye, they lose their jobs, their livelihood, and the conviction for which they cheated. Prosecutorial misconduct of this level is an automatic walk for the defendant on appeal.

2. Prosecutors have a higher standard of ethics imposed upon them than defense attorneys. The prosecutor, again, is required to do justice. The defense attorney's standard is to help his client in virtually any way possible. Everyone in the legal profession knows this.

Bad prosecutions more often arise out of poor police investigation, or personal failings of the prosecutor involved, such as cowardice, apathy, or stupidity, rather than from dishonesty.

3. Lack of funding to defense attorneys? Let's break this down: public defenders get paid out of public funds, at exactly the same pay rate as prosecutors in the same jurisdiction, and while they have pretty heavy case loads, they usually have more time to put into a serious trial than private defense attorneys. Private defense attorneys either get paid by their clients or by the state if the client is indigent. If the accused can't afford experts to examine the evidence or testify about their area of expertise, those experts get paid by the jursidiction - that's you and me and every other taxpayer. There is virtually no limit to how much of the public funds that a defense attorney can expend on experts, so long as there is some plausible reason for having them in the defense. Failure to provide funds for an arguably relevant expert witness for the defense is a denial of due process, and again results in reversal on appeal.

The prosecution does have access to police labs and the criminalists who work there, who testify in areas of their expertise. However, there are plenty of private criminalistics experts that the defense can call. If the police criminalist finds evidence that weakens the case against the accused, the prosecutor is required to turn it over to the defense. If the defense criminalist finds evidence that strengthens the case against the accused, there is no duty to turn that information over to the prosecution. And if the first defense criminalist doesn't help the defendant enough, the defendant can keep shopping on his own dime, or on the public's, if he can convince the judge of the merit of his request. Prosecutors' offices have to work within their budgets - which is why the prosecution generally calls fewer expert witnesses in the big trials.

4. On the subject of appeal, there are also publicly paid defense attorneys for a convict who wishes to appeal his conviction. It's one of the reasons why there are so many frivolous appeals jamming appellate court calendars. The convict has the right to demand that the appellate court review his trial to find some error, even if his appellate lawyer can't find anything specific to complain about. All on the taxpayer's account. So why not appeal? It costs the appellant nothing, and it's something diverting to do while serving his time.

5. Judges become judges in 1 of 3 different ways: They are elected in a general election for a vacant seat, they are directly appointed to a vacant seat by the governor, or they become temporary judges called "court commissioners", who can be but are not always appointed judges by the governor thereafter. The only difference between a court commissioner and a regular judge is that the parties have to agree, or "stipulate", in writing that the commissioner may hear their case. Candidates running for an open seat probably enjoy an advantage with the voters if they can list their occupation as prosecutor. However, Democrat governors appoint a LOT of public defenders to seats based on ideology, political connections, experience or other criteria, and governors of either party appoint even more private criminal defense attorneys because they make enough money to offer large campaign contributions to the governors' war chests.

6. It's funny, but around courthouses it is usually the former public defenders who are the toughest judges on criminal cases, and the former prosecutors who bend over backward to not appear unfair to the accused. Go ask some prosecutors or public defenders about this and they will tell you that it is true.

7. You will not see Gerry Spence or Racehorse Hanes becoming judges, but that is not because they have been defense attorneys. They would take enormous pay cuts to become judges. Most judges make 20-30% more than what the prosecutors and public defenders in their jurisdiction make. In some places that can amount to less than $70,000 per year. Spence and Hanes make millions from their high profile practice - they aren't about to go on the bench for chump change. Many lower profile private defense attorneys are reluctant to take the pay reduction involved in assuming the bench. Even when paid out of public funds, a private criminal defense practice can yield several times what a judicial salary amounts to - IF you are willing to work that hard.

8. Which leads to one of the paradoxes of public versus private criminal defense practice. If he's willing to work 12 hour plus days, put 200,000 miles per year on his car, and deal with the stress year after year, a private practice attorney can make lots of bucks in criminal defense. However, he'll be so busy making the rounds that he won't have as much time or energy to put into the defense of an individual client, or to keeping abreast of legal developments as the average public defender has. Public defenders tend to be idealists who accept the lower pay in order to feel good about how they practice law. You'll rarely find a C-grade lawyer in a public defender's office; most of them are A and B grade lawyers. On the other hand, you'll rarely find much above a C-grade lawyer in private practice. There are the occasional A's and B's but they tend to be very expensive. Nearly all the rest are C or lower. Odd but true. So it's sad and ironic to hear a defendant announce that he's not getting a public defender, no, he's gonna get him a REAL LAWYER. This usually means that his family will mortgage a house and pay 10s of thousands of dollars to get inferior legal represention for their loved one.

It's all relative... (4, Funny)

creimer (824291) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182222)

Tried reading the article but my Sony laptop caught on fire.

lots of junk science in police work (3, Interesting)

harlows_monkeys (106428) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182406)

It's not just arson investigation where there has been a lot of junk science (or no science). For a long time, the FBI was using analysis of the alloy composition of bullets to see if two bullets came from the same box of bullets. Their belief was that there were variations over time in manufacture, and so that if two bullets (say, one taken from a victim, and one taken from a suspect) had very similar composition, they came from the same box (and so, presumably the suspect once owned the bullet taken from the victim).

After something like 40 years of this being accepted, someone actually tested it. Result: no freaking correlation at all. The variation in composition of bullets within a given box was the same as variation among bullets from different boxes, purchased years apart. This is a completely worthless forensic technique.

Or consider early DNA testing. Up until at least the mid '90s (I don't know what they do now) a DNA test only looked for matches at a small number of base pairs. For any given DNA sample tested, there would be thousands of people in the world that matches that sample. What this meant was the the scientifically correct way to use DNA testing was to find your suspects using traditional police techniques, and THEN use a DNA test. If you had, say, 3 good suspects, and one of them had a DNA match, then that was very good evidence against that suspect. Unfortunately, sometimes it was used the other way. They'd start with the DNA, match it against whatever samples they had on file, and if they got a match, they'd go after that person. That's bogus.

If you look into the science behind much police investigation, you get this strange feeling you've fallen through some kind of wormhole and gone back to the early 19th century. It's amazing how much in common use has not been rigorously tested and peer reviewed by real scientists.

Re:lots of junk science in police work (1)

Wilson_6500 (896824) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182442)

It's amazing how much in common use has not been rigorously tested and peer reviewed by real scientists.

What do forensic scientists do, then? Are they mostly concerned with chemical analyses kits and ballistics? This isn't a troll--I honestly don't know what they would do if not validate techniques and processes--like what medical researchers spend so much time doing.

Re:lots of junk science in police work (4, Insightful)

Big Bob the Finder (714285) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182556)

Things can get tricky here. It can be a bit like sculpture, in a way- if you chisel your evidence just the right way, maybe it'll look like what you want. That can be a very bad thing. However, some investigations require tailor-made tests; I can think of a couple instances- none of which had anything to do with trying the accused, fortunately- that I was called upon to create a test or an experiment that produced results that could be used to determine an association. For example, when the accused was found with certain components, I was asked to determine if those components could be used to detonate a certain kind of bomb. They weren't used in the trial, but they were used to hold the suspect in pre-9/11 America when you had to prove that sort of thing.

Some tests rely upon the odds of producing a match- as with fingerprints. However, these are not always reliable. [wikipedia.org] That's biometrics, with a long and sometimes dubious track record. I'm not even sure if there's been a paper in the refereed literature that cites the statistics on the likelihood of a match between two non-related prints given a certain number of features.

Other fields, such as firearms and toolmarks, are even more open to interpretation. DNA evidence is a little better in some regards, but these figures have been botched, too- sometimes with lab accidents, sometimes intentionally. Fortunately, standards have gotten a lot tighter, and DNA evidence has been used to exonerate a considerable number of the accused, including a distressing number of individuals on death row.

Fortunately, some are straightforward. While that field test for, say, cocaine might give a false positive for several hundred (or thousand) compounds, the Raman infrared spectrometer can tell you what it is, even through the polyethylene bag in which the sample is kept. Then another test- gas chromatography or gas chrom with a mass spec detector (GC/MS) is used to confirm. The chemistry side of it is pretty good, provided orthogonal analysis- two independent tests based on different principles of analysis- can demonstrate that the sample has been identified correctly.

Re:lots of junk science in police work (1)

dbIII (701233) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183052)

For a long time, the FBI was using analysis of the alloy composition of bullets to see if two bullets came from the same box of bullets.

Come on - these guy use polygraphs - junk science took them over decades ago. If you look at things internationally it isn't so bad. I'll bet your state police don't go in for voodoo detection either.

Re:lots of junk science in police work (2, Funny)

Fred_A (10934) | more than 7 years ago | (#17184358)

Come on - these guy use polygraphs - junk science took them over decades ago.
Not to mention that according to the US TV shows sold over here, about 1/4th of their agents appear to be psychics of a kind or another too. Is there a budget line for dribbling candles, pendulums and pentagram chalks ? ;)

Re:lots of junk science in police work (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17183288)

Back to the early 19th century? That reminds me of this early 20th century book I read some time ago, about a very talented amateur who developed a scientific, deductional approach to the study of crimes. For example, he would spend years studying the composition of ashes from different makes of cigars, in order to be able to make deductions about who had been smoking what, after the fact. By using hundreds of techniques like this, he would eliminate the impossible, and whatever remained, would be the true events of the case. Scotland Yard were initially very skeptical of his methods, but after a number of cases many of their detectives started to study these new scientific methods on their own. Are you now telling me that these scientific methods haven't been adopted worldwide by now?

If only I remembered the name of this guy... I know that the book was written by a friend of this "scientist of crime", a doctor who sometimes helped in the cases and then wrote popular accounts for a magazine. I don't know where to find the actual scientific treatises on the subject of deductional solving of crimes, though.

Fire investigation (2, Interesting)

Big Bob the Finder (714285) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182468)

What is probably the single most annoying thing about fire investigation- from the investigator's perspective- is that arson is a terribly difficult crime to prove. Without a witness or some form of photographic or video evidence where an individual physically lights something on fire, the crime of arson is difficult to prove. As an instructor long ago put it to us: A man walks into a structure, and then walks back out. Later, it catches on fire. Houses burn all the time- bad wiring, gasoline stored near a gas water heater, cigarettes left burning. But causality- that that fire was intentionally set, and was set by that individual- may be difficult to prove.

In that regard, arson can be more difficult to prove than murder. With murder, there is frequently trace evidence with everything from blood droplets to weapons used, that can associate the murderer with the crime. With arson, in many cases there is heavy fire, smoke, and water damage, as well as the difficulty in proving that a fire started intentionally versus accidentally. Trace evidence such as gasoline found on the shoes of the accused arsonist can often be explained by more mundane events, such as spills at a filling station.

Making things worse, the folks who investigate are often poorly- or incorrectly- trained, and sometimes don't even want the job. Things are changing and candidates are frequently better educated than they have been in the past, but it's still a little rough around the edges. There aren't too many investigators in the field with advanced degrees, and a week or two of schooling (Arson I and II) at a state fire academy or the National Fire Academy are considered enough to get to work in many cases. 40 hours of fire investigation training, and you can help in putting people behind bars for what is considered a heinous crime such as arson of a habitable structure.

Sometimes investigation doesn't even start with the fire itself. Financial records are often scrutinized to determine if the accused would benefit financially. Business not doing well? Maybe it was torched. Home being remodeled? Maybe a convenient excuse to collect on insurance because of some major construction issues that existed. Upside down in your auto loan and gas hit $3 a gallon? That Yukon sure burns good!

Put all these together, and it's little wonder that some of the folks accused and convicted of this sort of thing are convicted and jailed. Many are poor, and get lousy lawyers- juries are likely to convict on scant evidence when the alternative is to let a possible firebug out on the streets.

Fortunately, there are improvements, and the standards for training have gone way the heck up in past years. Certification under some standard for training is often required for the job, as well as continuing education to stay on the job. Engineers, chemists, modelers, and physicists tackle some of the more difficult issues with lab tests to back up what's being said in court. It's one thing to say that a steam pipe at X degrees for Y years can eventually cause enough pyrolysis of nearby wood to create open flame; it's another to have some PhD back it up with experiments that prove it, possibly exonerating the accused.

Sometimes folks believe strange things from way the heck back in their training. This is part of the legend behind "spontaneous human combustion." The '921 says in it somewhere in a straightforward (and vaguely comforting) manner that humans do not spontaneously combust. Now only if we can do that with the other bits of legend that investigators have clung to over the ages.

Background: Fire Development (2, Informative)

Christopher_Edwardz (1036954) | more than 7 years ago | (#17182522)

Here is some interesting information from a book on my shelf on Arson:

From: Fire Investigation; DAÉID, NIAMH NIC; CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, USA, 2004. ISBN: 0-415-24891-4

(Excerpt: Chapter 1)

A fire develops through a number of fairly predictable stages. Initially a source of ignition is required at a site suitable for flaming combustion to occur. The materials begin to burn in a sustained ignition with an open flame which remains once the initial source of ignition is removed. This ignition is localised to the first fuel ignited. The fire plume emits hot gases generating a heat flux. These gases typically containing soot, water vapour, CO2, SO2 and other toxic gases. Convection carries these products and heat to the upper parts of the compartment and draws oxygen in at the bottom to sustain combustion. The increasing gas layer at the ceiling radiates heat into the room.

Growth Period

Convection and radiation spread the flames upwards and outwards from the original fuel package until nearby fuels reach their AIT and become involved in the fire. Radiative heat may spread the fire laterally depending on factors such as the proximity of fuel packages to each other. The fire grows by progressively spreading to involve adjacent combustible items. Hot gases composed of toxic gases, partially combusted pyrolysis products, soot and smoke rise to form a fuel rich layer at the ceiling, the temperature of which steadily increases. The lower part of the room will still be rich in oxygen and the rate of burning within the area continues to increase with a consequent increasing release of heat. As the fuel rich gas layer gets lower it may eventually ignite as some of its constituents may reach their AIT or by direct flame contact. This stage is called flameover and involves a rolling flame front within the hot gas layer.

Flashover

Even without flameover occurring the hot gas layer is radiating heat into the room. This causes items in the room to progressively heat up and when the layer reaches a temperature of approximetely 600C it is generating approximately 20 kW/m [2]. In a normally proportioned room this is sufficient to raise the temperature of cellulosic fuels within the room (furniture, carpets, etc.) to their AIT and simultaneously ignite in a process called flashover. Flashover is a transition from a fire involving one fuel package after another to a fire which involves all available fuel in the compartment. At the time of flashover, ventilation in the compartment becomes a restriction on the amount of oxygen available for combustion to occur, and the minimum size fire that can go to flashover in a given room is a function of the ventilation provided through an opening (ventilation factor).

Post-Flashover

Fire is a balancing act between fuel, heat and air. If the ventilation is limited then the fire will progress at a slower rate involving slower temperature rise and greater production of smoke. Ignition of the smoke layer will take longer or may only occur outside of the compartment if the oxygen supply is limited. If the fuel does not burn fast enough or produce enough heat, flashover may not be reached. Once post-flashover or steady state is reached all involved fuels will continue to burn as long as oxygen is available until the fuel is consumed.

Smouldering

Eventually, as the fuel available becomes exhausted open flaming combustion becomes gradually less and glowing combustion becomes more prevalent. This can also occur if the oxygen levels in a developing fire drops (below c.16%). The fuel may still remain in a heated state and the reintroduction of oxygen can cause the fire to re-ignite with explosive speed. Such a scenario is sometimes called backdraft.

AIT: Automatic Ignition Temperature (as in 451 Fahrenheit)

In general, if arson investigation used to be like TFA states, then yes, I'd say that it has come a long way baby.

The book referenced above is a ripping read if you are even mildly interested in such things.

Publisher [crcpress.com]

I'm not in any way affiliated with either the authors or the publisher.

Re:Background: Fire Development (1)

Fred_A (10934) | more than 7 years ago | (#17184378)

Damn... my "Arson for Dummies" doesn't mention any of this... I knew I should have gotten something more serious... ;)

Nice "facts" in TFA (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17182870)

Up until the 1990s, this is what fire investigators were taught:
Fires always burn up, not down....

I'll just keep holding this match I've lit because fires don't burn down so my fingers will be safe! Ow, that hurts!

Nice factual reporting there.

unreliable forensic evidence (1)

belmolis (702863) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183040)

Regrettably, this doesn't come as a surprise. In my own field we have the example of "voiceprint analysis", where "analysts" claimed to be able to identify a suspect's voice by comparing two spectrograms. This was complete and utter nonsense. There was no evidence that human beings have unique voices, no underlying theory of differences among voices (since almost all research focussed on abstracting away from individual differences so as to understand the acoustic basis for speech perception), no published description of the technique by which the comparison was made (which was proprietary) and no properly documented studies of the efficacy of the technique. Even worse, there were cases in Great Britain in which phoneticians testified solely on the basis of their ears that "the voice [on the tape or wherever] is the voice of the defendant and could be that of no other person in the world." If your lawyer didn't know enough to find a real expert to debunk this nonsense, you could be in a lot of trouble.

Investigations (2, Interesting)

crowbarsarefornerdyg (1021537) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183046)

My father was the arson investigator in my home town (may he rest in peace), and I joined the fire department when I turned 18. I've been on dozens of investigations with him, and I have NEVER heard him say conclusively that an accelerant was used in any fire without having some kind of evidence to back it up. We regularly took samples from suspect areas and sent them to the county arson/bomb lab for analysis. My father taught me many things about fires and arsons, and the only thing I remember him saying that is mentioned in the article is that multiple holes in the floor can indicate multiple ignition points.

As was said earlier, it's damn near impossible to get an arrest for arson, much less a conviction. We had a guy admit to trying to torch his car for the insurance. He even wrote a confession and signed it, in front of my father and sheriff's deputies, and the DA let him off.

Arson investigation is grueling, filthy work. Hours on hours of rooting around in the rubble that was someone's home or business; sorting out the evidence from the disaster.

Fellow nerds, even though this shows that fire investigation is still an evolving science, go thank a firefighter or investigator for their service anyway. It'll make their day.

Byrds (0, Offtopic)

OriginalArlen (726444) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183144)

Dig the Byrds ref (Turn! turn! turn!)... I picked up a 28-track best-of for £2.99 on a lunchtime whim a few years back, and it blew me away - definitely underrated by ver kidz today, IMHO. That said, I have no Beatles, or Stones, or indeed much else at all from the 60s (apart from some Who) ... Prog didn't really get going until 1970 :)

The Bradford Stadium Fire (3, Interesting)

Bertie (87778) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183160)

Many of you across the pond won't be familiar with this disaster, but it's as good an example of fire spreading quickly without accelerants as you'll ever see. It all started when someone dropped a cigarette, and within a few minutes a hundred-metre long wooden stand was a goner, killing dozens of people. There's a video [youtube.com] of it on YouTube, although I should warn you that there's one or two scenes in it which I personally find slightly difficult to watch.

I didn't mean it.... (1)

6Yankee (597075) | more than 7 years ago | (#17183518)

...I was just arson about!
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