How to determine arson: Greeley, state fire investigators talk about how they do their jobs | MyWindsorNow.com

How to determine arson: Greeley, state fire investigators talk about how they do their jobs

Tommy Simmons
tsimmons@greeleytribune.com

Greg Cobb and his team spent four and a half days sifting through the scorched husk of a mobile home in the 800 block of 26th Avenue in January 2015.

The ground was covered in snow and the temperatures were below zero, so cold police and firefighters had to work in shifts.

At the time, Cobb was not yet the Greeley Fire Department's lead fire investigator, a title he now holds. But he had spent almost two decades investigating fires to determine whether they were caused by criminal activity.

Even after almost 20 years of doing the job, though, that fire stood out to him. It killed 3-year-old Lileigh Kellenaers, who was alone in the home late that January night when the fire started.

"It was one of those cases where you know you have to exercise due diligence and speak on her behalf," Cobb said. "It hit a lot of people and weighed on them pretty hard."

In December of that year, the girl's mother was sentenced to four years in prison, and her boyfriend was found guilty of manslaughter a few months later.

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The Greeley Fire Department has a seven-person team of fire investigators charged with determining whether blazes such as the January 2015 fire were criminal acts or accidents. They work with the Greeley Police Department, which has two fire investigators. Cobb said the approach allows firefighters to handle the technical side of the investigation, such as determining the cause and origin of the fire, and frees up police to interview witnesses and establish possible motives. The two-pronged approach works well and can sometimes yield results within days, as was the case in an Aug. 16 garage fire in central Greeley that left one man dead. That investigation led to the arrest of 22-year-old Aaron Hoult, who has since been charged with arson and murder.

Other investigations take longer. Officials are still working to gather information in the case of the Aug. 6 fire that destroyed the Windsor Mill, which sent flames 50 feet into the summer night and caused millions of dollars worth of damage. It has since been declared arson, after investigators ruled out numerous accidental causes. Experts from the ATF are leading that investigation, but at its core it's no different from the smaller fires Cobb and his team examine.

Terry Henderson, and ATF special agent who oversees arson investigations, said investigators start at the outside of a building, usually in the least damaged area. They photograph and take notes on everything, such as marks left by smoke, seared patterns made by flames and even seemingly innocuous, everyday items a criminal may have left at the scene. Investigators work their way inside, Henderson said, always searching for the place where the flames began.

Sometimes, determining an exact point of origin is impossible, Cobb said, but investigators can usually find an area of origin. Burn patterns look different near the fire's genesis, which is how experts know they are getting close.

"Fire and smoke behave in a pretty consistent manner," Cobb said.

Once they have determined the point of origin, Henderson said investigators rely on their knowledge of how fire moves and evolves to recreate what happened.

The other priority, Cobb said, is finding what sparked the fire. If investigators can't do that, they must list the cause of the fire as undetermined.

It's a scientific endeavor, but it also requires good detective work. Henderson said a fire scene could very well also be the scene of a murder. In addition to reconstructing a fire, investigators must also collect evidence such as fingerprints and DNA.

Both Henderson and Cobb described starting the process with a number of hypotheses as to what caused the fire. As the investigation progresses, they said, they whittle down their list to a few stronger theories.

While they are doing that, Henderson said, other team members are also interviewing witnesses to learn as much as possible about how and why the fire started. That process can take time too, Cobb said. Many times, witnesses are hospitalized and, if they inhaled smoke during the fire, they may not be able to speak for days.

When they do speak, though, their words are often paramount in solving a case. In the 19 years Cobb has been investigating fires, he's seen a plethora of motives, ranging from revenge to domestic violence to insurance fraud and even gang activity. He also remembers cases in which extremist groups, such as animal rights activists set fires to further their political views.

It's a complex process, but, Cobb said, that's what keeps it interesting. The son of a meteorology professor, he's a self-described science geek. Fire investigation is interesting, he said, but it's also important work, especially in fatal fires, such as in Lileigh's case.

"You have to be able to speak for the victim because they lost the ability to tell their story," he said.

Training

Fire science is a complex subject that touches on multiple disciplines ranging from chemistry to building construction. Lt. Greg Cobb of the Greeley Fire Department, who has been investigating fires for 19 years, said the training process takes about three years to complete. He said the department has two firefighters nearing the completion of that process.

Terry Henderson, a special agent charged with overseeing fire investigations for the ATF, said the agency’s training process is very rigorous and is a formal two-year process in which agents take graduate-level classes in forensic science and investigate 100 fires.

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