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Fighting fires, solving crimes

Valley agency solve rate beats national average

Spokane Valley Fire seems to have more than its fair share of arson fires, but it also solves more than is standard because of a strong group of five fire investigators who are on call 24 hours a day.

Assistant fire marshal and fire investigator Clifton Mehaffey said that the numbers that show Valley Fire with higher-than-normal arson fires are probably misleading. In Spokane County only the Spokane Valley, Spokane and Airway Heights Fire Departments have fire investigators with arrest powers. Fire District 9 has investigators but they have no police powers. “In the remainder of the county, fires aren’t investigated,” he said. “It’s about underreporting, frankly.”

Most rural fire districts are staffed partly or completely by volunteers and don’t have any investigators, he said. “They respond to the fire, put it out and go home,” he said. “They don’t have the resources.”

If a fire handled by a volunteer department in Spokane County is obviously suspicious, mutual aid agreements exist that allow them to request a fire investigator but investigations are not done as a matter of routine.

In 2009 Spokane Valley Fire had 376 fires and 132 incidents that warranted a response by investigators. According to department policy an investigator is dispatched to any working fire (with flames and smoke showing) and to any fire that causes more than $5,000 in damage, appears suspicious, causes a fatality or serious injury or could lead to litigation. Investigators will also respond if a fire suppression system is activated or a battalion chief on the scene requests an investigator “if their gut tells them something is wrong,” Mehaffey said. “You don’t know it is arson until you’re done,” he said.

Of those fires investigated in 2009, 63 were accidental and 62 were criminal fires, which includes arson and reckless burning. Seven fires were undetermined. While the arson rate is down from 2008, it is still twice the 2008 national average of 24.1 arsons per 100,000 residents, Mehaffey said. In comparison, all of Spokane County minus the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley saw 569 total fires in 2007. Only six of those were confirmed as arson fires.

Fire investigators closed 20 of the arson cases by making an arrest or closing it with “exceptional clearance,” meaning the person could not be arrested because of age or mental incapacity. That solve rate is also twice the national average. Mehaffey credits that to his department’s policy of having a fire investigator on call at all times. “We prioritize it,” he said. “It becomes a priority in our community to catch arsonists.”

There are six main motivations for arson, said Mehaffey – profit, excitement, vandalism, to make a political statement, crime concealment or revenge. Determining that a fire is arson is only the first step. “Then you have to do the ‘who done it’ part,” he said.

Mehaffey and Valley Fire’s other investigators have police powers and have received training in writing search warrants and other tasks. “Our success rate really is simply because of our relationship with law enforcement,” he said. “We rely on the Sheriff’s Office for our training.”

The Sheriff’s Office and other police agencies also help if investigators need to serve a “high risk” warrant where there may be weapons or someone might get violent.

After a fire, investigators look at burn patterns on the wall and which areas are more charred to determine where a fire began and what the cause may be. The department also has a device that can detect vapors of combustibles such as gasoline in the air. “You have to rule out all accidental causes,” he said.

Assistant fire marshal and fire investigator Paul Chase recently responded to a shed fire in the 4000 block of North Willow Road. It was called in as a working fire after firefighters saw huge clouds of black smoke billowing from the building. In reality the smoke was from tires that were burning, and the fire wasn’t as bad as first responders thought.

Chase took pictures and looked at the charred ceiling and walls. “In this case you can see where the fire came across the top,” he said as he looked up at the roof supports.

He looked for power sources and other possible causes of the fire, but didn’t find any in the southwest corner of the shed that sustained the most damage. “It’s kind of a process of elimination,” he said.

Chase determined that the fire was caused by ashes left over from an “experimental fire” set by a teen living in the home. The teen reportedly told his mother that he had set a fire outside, then moved the still-warm ashes inside the shed to conceal them. The ashes retained enough heat and embers to ignite nearby trash.

Solving an arson fire is sometimes complicated when the evidence has gone up in smoke. Mehaffey recalls a case in 2001 where 21 fires were set in the Sprague Avenue corridor and investigators suspected a serial arsonist who lives in the area. No arrest was ever made because there wasn’t enough proof.

“We go forward with strong cases,” Mehaffey said. “We haven’t lost a case in a long time.”



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