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Arson, Accident, Negligence: Why there is need for Forensic investigation for fire incidents

In the last few months, there have been several market fire incidents in Nigeria. Popular among them are the Onitsha fire incident in October 2019, the Balogun fire market in November 2019, Ekiosa market fire in Benin in December 2019,  Kara cattle market fire in January 2020, Ogbete Main Market Enugu fire in January 2020, Akesan market fire in Oyo state in January 2019, the Amu market fire in Lagos in January 2020 and the most recent is the Balogun market fire on the 29th of January 2020.

What has been more alarming is the quick intervals between these fires, it sure gets the average forensic investigator thinking. Fire is a serious incident as it could result in loss of lives and properties, as experienced in all the above fire incidents.

The simple question an average person or an expert would ask will be centered around what led to these fire incidents. Could it be an arson (deliberate) or an accident or negligence? Who is responsible or accountable? Would a thorough investigation be carried out with the hope that the report can help traders that have insured their goods get some insurance payout? Are there connecting links between all these fires? And are there lessons that could be learned to mitigate these incidents? and so much more. I have investigated several fire incidents and its one of the most challenging yet exciting experiences because it is like a puzzle. You have to sieve through the destruction to find the answer to all the questions.

I remember a major fire incident in a place of worship in Abuja that I investigated in 2017, I spent about 6 days conducting the crime scene investigation, interviewing eye-witnesses, reviewing building structures and spent another 1 months conducting further analysis before eventually coming to a conclusion about the cause. So, fire investigations are not always a quick process, it requires a careful analysis of the scene, eyewitness testimonies, and scientific exploration to understand what the cause is. And the goal is to ensure there is a very low probability of a reoccurrence and to seek justice if the fire was caused criminally.

For a fire to occur, three things need to be present and interact, the first is Oxygen, which is always present at 21% in the atmosphere but requires a 16% oxygen to cause a fire. Second is the fuel which could be solid (paper,  cloth, plastic, grease, etc), liquid (Petrol, Kerosene, Alcohol, oil) or Gas (Natural gas, Propane, Carbon monoxide, etc), and third, the heat or source of ignition (the sun, sparks, cigarette, chemical action, etc). This is called a fire triangle. If you take one out, there would be no fire. This is the starting point of a fire investigation.

For an efficient fire incident investigation, it is important that the fire scene integrity is preserved – that is, ensuring that no item is removed or touched before the scene is thoroughly processed in a bit-by-bit procedure by a forensic investigator. This is to help in evidence collection and to determine the seat of ignition (where the fire started), the fuel that propelled the fire, and the role of weather, oxygen, temperature, building structure as well as fire response services.

One of the most useful tools in fire investigation is the eyewitness testimony. Interviews are needed to ascertain human perspectives to the cause of the fire, and they are carried out by forensic investigators as soon as investigation is conducted. The testimony would help to put the piece of the puzzle together. One thing I have however noticed in the cause of my career in Nigeria is that job insecurity (the fear of losing one’s jobs and repercussions) makes people not to cooperate in providing enough cues to investigators, and sometimes leads to false or maybe what I will call favorable incident account.

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In December 2019, I worked on a fire scene in the southern part of Nigeria, and upon interviewing the witnesses, I noticed there were lots of discrepancies in their accounts. I realized this was due to worries about losing their jobs. It took the reassurance of the facility’s head ensuring them of their job security before people started responding truthfully to questions being asked. When there are incidents of successive fire in a country, the forensic investigator would try to ascertain if there is a link between all the fires. In the case when the cause of a fire is suspected to be an arson, the forensic investigator being trained is aware that arsonists tend to get more comfortable with their crimes as they progress, and the successions become quicker, bolder and bigger. This will help in providing the government or industries with what is called a crime or fire signature. A signature is simply the means, tactics or method of operation of the arsonist, that would most likely be the same in all scenes. The arsonist would most likely get comfortable with a tactic that they are able to get away with or what is comfortable for them. So, the report from all incidents would be compared to see if there are some things that are common.

The goal of an arson investigation especially when it is a serial offense (more than one fire linked to a person or people) is to get justice by using the analysis of the evidence obtained for prosecution. It is also dependent on the forensic investigator to provide investigative details if the fire results from an accident. This is done after a thorough forensic analysis which requires the forensic investigator to positively ascertain that it was an incident that occurred without any malice or negligence under uncontrollable circumstances.

An investigator can ascertain that fire was a result of negligence if it is determined that there are obvious precautions known by parties involved that should have been taken but was ignored, which later resulted in the fire. This is a common cause of fire majorly in Nigeria as evident in some investigations I have done in the past. In Nigeria, a lot of people do not see the need for a fire investigation because they believe that the investigation would not bring back what they have lost and it will also cost them a lot of money. Yes, this is understandable.

But fire investigation goes beyond that. If criminality is involved, justice could be sought, and if it is an accident or negligence, the investigation would help to ensure that there is a low likelihood of the incident happening again as recommendations would be given. Fire is always devastating, and no matter how sure you are of the cause, a thorough investigation is still required, because what might look obvious might not really be that obvious. Thus, it is expected that everyone is aware of what to do before, during, and after a fire incident.

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