Spark Zero: Where Did the California Fires Start?

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As arson probes continue in southern California, one investigator wrestles with the search for the one person and one place where the 25,000-acre fire began.


Well, mercifully, for folks in Southern California, the wildfires that were burning there last week seem to be mostly under control. The vast majority of the 35 fires are blamed on the hot Santa Ana winds. But two of them have been officially ruled arson, including the 25,000-acre Santiago Fire in Orange County. Authorities there are asking anyone who has photos or video of the area where that wildfire started to call their arson tip line.

Here's what I always wonder, though, when you see this kind of story. How the heck to they even know if one of these giant fires is arson? I mean, how do you figure out exactly where it started? And isn't all that evidence burned up, I mean, by definition, because it was in a fire? This question came up back in August when there were huge fires burning in Greece. Officials there suspected arson.

Back then, I talked to Nina Scotti, an arson investigator in California who spent 21 years with the Pasadena Fire Department. Here's what I asked her.

How do they actually sort of go into a big burned-out chunk of, like, forest and actually go, here's where it started with this kind of a thing? Doesn't it all just look the same?

Ms. NINA SCOTTI (Former Arson Investigator, Pasadena Fire Department, California): Well, to the normal eye it does, but, however, as investigators, we're trained to look at certain things that lead us to the area of origin. One of the main key pieces of evidence that we could have are witness statements. Who - what did they see when the fire first broke out?

BURBANK: I mean, can you see, like, markings and stuff if someone used gasoline, or if they left a cigarette butt? Like, they're saying, you know - I just came from California recently, and a lot of times they'd say, oh, it was, you know, someone tossed a cigarette butt. Like they're saying, you know, I just came from California recently, and a lot of times they'd say, oh, it was, you know, someone tossed a cigarette butt out their car. How do they, like - doesn't that get incinerated? How much evidence is left?

Ms. SCOTTI: Well, you got to understand, too, where the fire starts, it starts out really slow and then it burns outward, and that has a lot to do with the temperature of the fuels and the wind. What it will do is it will leave the area where it initially starts slow burning, and as it propogates outward, it increases in intensity. So the area of less destruction or damage will kind of be untouched. So you are going to find evidence of possible devices or cigarette butts. They've even found matches in the area of origin.

BURBANK: Well, you think that would be a thing that would really go up, a pack of matches.

Ms. SCOTTI: Not necessarily. There's, you know, remains of the cover or, you know, the match stick, and there have been investigators that have found these in the area of origin.

BURBANK: Is it - this sounds a kind of like a dumb question, but is it hard to start a forest fire? I mean, can you just throw down one match, or does it take some actual work?

Ms. SCOTTI: You have extreme high temperatures and you have, you know, forest land that hasn't burned in years. The forest and the vegetation has been very dried out, and you have intense wind. All that is - will start a fire, and it will burn forever.

BURBANK: That is a conversation I had with arson investigator Nina Scotti, formerly of the Pasadena Fire Department.

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