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Gum Shoes in a Black Charred World

by Pat Dooris

Bio | Email | Follow: @PatDoorisKGW

Posted on August 16, 2006 at 7:33 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:40 PM

Detectives have always fascinated me. I think its cool to be able to look a pieces of the puzzle and figure out the who and why behind it all.

That's why its amazing to think about what fire investigators do. I interviewed Rich Stenhouse today. He's the lead fire investigator for Portland Fire.

He told me he considers every fire scene a crime scene. He tries to rule the crime in or out as he pores over the evidence. And the first thing he does is get a glimpse of the big picture as its happening...then turn back the clock.

Most of us may drive by a fire and look at the flames or smoke...Rich and others drive to a fire and look at much, much more.

He told me he takes pictures of the crowd right away---if there's an arsonist involved---he or she could be there watching. He also works to find the first fire crews on the scene...what did they see? What was the color of the smoke? Where did the fire burn hottest? Was it unusually hard to put out? He tries to find the "state" of the building before it burned. Was there an alarm system? Did anyone trigger the alarm by opening a door or breaking a window? Sometimes, he said, you can actually follow the spread of the smoke thru the building as it sets off different zones of burglar alarms. He also wants to look at the burned remains of the building. He hunts for flammable liquid that might still survive in the cracks of the floor. He studies burn patterns---the deepest burns in the wood most likely point toward the beginning point.

Sometimes that search involves walking through a burned building, sometimes it means carefully sifting through several layers of debris that collapsed on top of each other.

Once he finds the point of origin he starts looking for what belongs and what doesn't. Eventually he'll get to the point where he's able to say what happened....the blaze was accidental, incendiary, natural or ...sometimes...that he can not determine how the fire started.

He's a gum shoe---a detective in a black charred world that holds nothing but a bad smell and uneasy feeling for most of us.

But for Rich Stenhouse and other fire investigators most scenes are rich with clues that answer the who and why.