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Once the flames are out, Yakima County fire investigator Chris Pedersen gets busy figuring out why the fire started

Chris Pederson, Yakima County’s only certified fire investigator, poses for a portrait inside the prop, a building used for fire simulations and training on the Yakima County Fire District 12 Training Facility on Aug. 30, 2018, in Yakima, Wash. (Oliver Hamlin / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Chris Pederson, Yakima County’s only certified fire investigator, poses for a portrait inside the prop, a building used for fire simulations and training on the Yakima County Fire District 12 Training Facility on Aug. 30, 2018, in Yakima, Wash. (Oliver Hamlin / Yakima Herald-Republic)

YAKIMA, Wash. – In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, legendary detective Sherlock Holmes is often asked by London police to help investigate some of their trickier cases.

Holmes and his partner, John Watson, are known for their keen investigative minds, which allow them to suss out new clues in cases that have left even London’s most seasoned detectives bewildered.

Yakima County Fire Marshal Chris Pedersen is the local equivalent to Sherlock Holmes, with two key differences: She investigates fires, not crimes; and she doesn’t have a Watson – at least, not an official Watson. Pedersen is the only certified fire investigator in her office, which means she alone is tasked with overseeing the investigation into any fire that starts in an unincorporated area of Yakima County.

“We had two fire investigators for years but they both happened to retire within about a year or a year and a half of each other,” Pedersen said. “I was really pushing to get my certification so we still had a certified fire investigator. Now that I’m the fire marshal, I’m helping and wanting my deputy to get his certification, too so there’s at least two of us again for the county.”

Deputy Fire Marshal Todd Hottell is in the process of earning his credentials and will likely be certified by November. This means Pedersen soon can start saying, “Elementary, my dear Hottell,” if she doesn’t already.

In the meantime, if a fire breaks out in the 4,500 square miles of unincorporated area in Yakima County – that is, in any place that’s not governed by a city – it’s Pedersen’s job to figure out what started it.

On top of her own investigative duties, city fire departments, which investigate fires within city limits, will often call Pedersen if they’re short staffed or want another set of eyes during a difficult investigation. With 25 years of firefighting experience under her suspenders, Pedersen’s expertise is valued by local departments.

“She’s good,” said Dave Leitch, former West Valley fire chief. “She’d just keep narrowing down the scope to where it potentially could have started and then would go from there.”

As fire marshal, Pedersen doesn’t put out fires. If one starts in an unincorporated area, crews from the corresponding fire district – the county is broken into 12 districts – will respond to extinguish it. Sometimes, those firefighters can save Pedersen the trouble of having to come investigate.

If the cause of the fire is obvious, there’s no need for her to respond, she said.

“A lot of the time they’ll just call me and let me know that there was a fire and let me know, ‘We’ve investigated, we’ve talked to them. We have the cause.’ So then I don’t go out,” she said. “It’s when they think they know, or they’re not sure, that they call me to come out.”

“Investigation has always been an interest of mine. It’s like taking a giant puzzle and putting it together to figure out what started this fire.”

Clues in the ashes

Investigations require inspectors to scrounge through ashes and rubble, searching for clues that may yield some answers as to how the fire started.

But those clues are often scarce.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of undetermined fires because of the damage,” Pedersen said. “It happens more than you think.”

Of the 41 fires that have burned on unincorporated county land this year, Pedersen says about half have undetermined causes.

Discovering where the fire started is often simple, Pederson said. Figuring out how it started is what’s tricky.

“We look for different indicators on how the wood is charred, the severity of the char,” she said. “Typically, when we go in, we go from the least burnt area to the most burnt area to try to narrow it down to the area of origin, as we call it. We may be able to narrow it to that area, but we may not be able to pinpoint exactly what started the fire.”

She said the best resources in determining what started a fire are witnesses.

“We rely a lot on witnesses – what they saw when they called 911 or, if somebody was home, what they saw or heard,” Pedersen said. “If nobody was around, it is really tough.”

Overall, it’s harder to determine what started a wildland fire than it is a house or building fire, which is why so few of Yakima’s summer brush fire cases have been solved. Part of the reason for this is because brush fires tend to happen in more rural places with fewer fire responders nearby, which means those fires have more time to burn evidence.

As far as house fires go, Pedersen said the ones that typically give investigators the most trouble are electrical fires. One reason is because the average home has dozens of wires running through it, and it’s often difficult to tell whether a burned wire is what ignited the fire or if that wire was simply damaged by an already burning fire.

“Those are tough unless you can somehow pinpoint it to a coffee pot or something like that. Those are really the hard ones to figure out,” Pedersen said.

Of all the undetermined fires Pedersen has investigated, a few have stuck in her mind. The most recent of those fires was in May, at a pallet and bin factory in Gleed.

That fire destroyed a large Universal Forest Products building, causing roughly $1 million in damages. Pedersen investigated that fire with help from federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents, who routinely assist in the investigations of fires that do significant damage. The cause of the fire is still undetermined.

“We spent two days out there. I was working with nine ATF agents. We dug it out and we still, unfortunately, could not come to a complete conclusion of what caused that fire,” Pedersen said. “We worked really hard at it.”

“What you do is you come up with a hypothesis and you try to work to that hypothesis and prove it right or wrong. We came up with a lot of them and then we kept proving them wrong. It was really hard and we couldn’t narrow it down. We had an area, but we couldn’t narrow down what the ignition source was.”

When asked to wager a guess as to what caused it, she said, “I don’t like to guess. It can get me in trouble.”

A quarter century of service

Pedersen, 47, began her career in 1993 as a volunteer firefighter with the West Valley Fire Department. She hit 25 years on the job in July.

She said firefighting had always interested her because of her dad, who rose to the rank of captain with the Yakima Fire Department during his career.

“I kind of grew up around it,” she said.

In her spare time, Pedersen still volunteers with West Valley, where she’s now a lieutenant. Not long after she started there, she began working side-by-side with Nathan Craig, now the department’s chief.

“The one thing that stands out to me after working with Chris for this many years is her ability to do the job, and that’s why people follow her,” Craig said. “She’s a firefighter’s officer. She’s gonna get in and do the work and get dirty and make sound decisions. She’s the kind of person that you want with you at a fire.”

Despite her duties as county fire marshal and investigator, Pedersen is still very involved with the department, Craig said. He said she’s routinely involved with drills, does fire investigation for the department, and is regularly the on-call incident commander on weekends, which means she takes charge of any fires that start in West Valley on those days.

In 2013, Pedersen began working in the fire marshal’s office, where she quickly established herself. She started as a fire safety specialist, and over the course of five years, was promoted to deputy fire marshal, then assistant fire marshal, then fire marshal.

Apart from investigations, her duties include ensuring construction on new developments is done in accordance with the international fire code, conducting fire safety inspections, educating the public on fire safety and supervising her staff of four. Her staff includes the deputy fire marshal and three fire safety specialists.

Deputy Fire Marshal Hottell said the office is relatively young, but said that helps foster a sense of camaraderie.

“All of us, including myself, are really new to the fire marshal’s office and have different standards of experience,” he said. “We’ll definitely be a department that’s growing together.”

Hottell describes Pedersen as detail-oriented, hands-on and a good leader. When you talk to her, it shows.

“I love my job. I love what I do on both sides,” she said. “I love being a volunteer firefighter and I really, really enjoy being the fire marshal. It keeps me on my toes. I’m learning something every day.”


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