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Fire and Explosion Investigation

Forensic Science Assessments: A Quality and Gap Analysis - Fire Investigation - the American Association for the Advancement of Science produced this July 2017 report that assesses what aspects of fire investigation are well founded and science and where gaps exist in knowledge. The full report is available for free download. A "plain language" summary is also available for download.

National Academy of Sciences Report - See pp. 170-173 for the National Research Counsel's assessment of the analysis of explosives evidence and fire debris

Fire and Explosion Investigation Subcommittee - focuses on standards and guidelines related to the investigation, analyses and interpretation of crime scenes where arson or use of explosives is suspected. This OSAC has replaced what was the Technical Working Group for Fire and Explosions.

A Guide for Investigating Fire and Arson - this 2009 NIJ publication describes recommended practices for the collection and preservation of evidence at fire scenes. This guide may provide areas of cross examination in cases where the recommended policies were not followed.

Fire and Arson Scene Evidence: A Guide for Public Safety Personnel - 2000 NIJ publication written and approved by the Technical Working Group on Fire/Arson Scene Investigation. Includes recommendations about preserving the scene, interviewing witnesses, documentation, and evidence processing.


  • NFPA 921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, 2011 ed. - the National Fire Protection Association publishes this manual which is the standard of care in fire investigation. This guide can be viewed for free on the NFPA website which is an excellent way to become familiar with the standards; however, if you wish to download or print it, you must purchase a copy. Email Sarah Rackley Olson if you would like to borrow a copy from the NCIDS Forensics Library or if you need a list of cases where this manual was accepted by courts as the standard of care. The Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science approved the NFPA for inclusion in the OSAC Registry in 2016. The OSAC Registry serves as a trusted repository of high-quality, science-based standards and guidelines for forensic practice.
  • Forensic Investigation Techniques for Inspecting Electrical Conductors Involved in Fire - 2012 DOJ publication by Richard J. Roby, Ph.D. and Jamie McAllister, Ph.D. that looks at the physical characteristics of energized and non-energized wires subjected to various types of fire exposures.
  • Reducing Uncertainty of Quantifying the Burning Rate of Upholstered Furniture - 2012 DOJ publication by Marc L. Janssens that investigates how to estimate the burning rate of upholstered furniture and how to express the uncertainty of this prediction.
  • Spontaneous Ignition in Fire Investigation - 2012 DOJ publication by James G. Quintiere, Justin T. Warden, Stephen M. Tamburello, and Thomas E. Minnich that addresses the principles of spontaneous ignition and its potential role as the cause and origin of a fire.
  • Thermal Properties Database - 2012 DOJ publication by Arnaud Trouve’ and Thomas Minnich. This publication explains the Burning Item Database which describes the burning characteristics of common household and office items.
  • Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation - 2006 book by John Lentini on appropriate techniques for fire scene investigations and chemical analysis of fire debris. Highlights frequent errors in fire investigation, the history of fire investigation and how the profession has evolved.
  • Death by Fire - this Frontline documentary investigates the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man who was executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting the fire that killed his three young daughters. Prior to his execution, reports were submitted to Texas officials raising serious doubts about the science used to determine that the fire was arson.
  • USFA Fire Burn Pattern Tests - this 1997 study by FEMA and the US Fire Administration found that ventilation and flashover may change or move patterns making correct interpretation of the pattern more difficult. Flashover was found in a majority of test fires and did obscure patterns including patterns from ignitable liquids.


Additional Online Resources

  • The Arson Research Project - this criminal justice research project has a mission of examining the reliablity of evidence used in the investigation and prosecution of arson and identifying convictions obtained based on unreliable evidence.
  • Ignitable Liquids Reference Collection Database - the National Center for Forensic Science at the University of Central Florida has tested over 600 commercial products and compiled information about their molecular composition in an online database. Samples from a fire investigation can be compared with this reference collection to identify evidence collected from the fire scene.
  • Scientific Fire Analysis - website posted by John Lentini which contains links to recent articles published on fire investigation.
  • International Association of Arson Investigators, Inc. is an association of more than 5,000 fire investigation professionals. The website has some information about trainings and standards, but most of the material is available only to members.
  • NC International Association of Arson Investigators, Inc. is the NC chapter of the IAAI. Find information about relevant NC case law, local training, and membership.
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives - Explosives Enforcement - the federal agency responsible for administering and enforcing the criminal and regulatory provisions of Federal laws pertaining to explosives enforcement and arson.
  • InterFire.org - this website has several online training modules which give introductory information, but should not replace in depth research of the issues.

Case Law

  • United States v. Hebshie, 754 F.Supp. 2d 89 (2010). This opinion by Judge Nancy Gertner is a must-read regarding standards of representation in arson cases. The opinion provides useful information on Daubert hearings, cause and origin testimony, burn patterns, canine evidence and laboratory analysis.

Practice tips

  • If any of these findings were used to identify arson in your case, you should conduct further research and investigation: pour patterns, crazed glass, melted metal thresholds, burn marks under doorways, chipping of concrete, alligatoring or blistering of burned wood, or the point of origin being where the most damage occurred. The Discover Magazine article, Seven Myths About Arson, explains why these phenomena are frequently misinterpreted.
  • Records to collect: 911, police, firefighters, state fire marshal and dog, public water works, insurance agent, insurance investigator, claims adjuster, EMT, wrecker driver, landfill operator, store records from purchase of accelerant, etc.
  • Motions to file: Motion to Suppress (search warrant issue?), Motion to Preserve all Physical Evidence, Motion to Preserve to Preserve the Fire Scene.
  • Visit the database of experts to find the contact information for experts in this field.