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Smoking out the source: Fire Investigation Task Force finds secrets in the soot

There are secrets in the soot. It just takes trained eyes to smoke them out. And those eyes belong to members of the Racine County Fire Investigation Task Force, which has a 75 percent success rate on completing and, if necessary, prosecuting fire investigations, according to Mike Boehmer, task force chair.

Fire fighters, police officers and investigators representing communities throughout Racine County make up the Task Force. Newer members recently gathered in Waterford for training sessions in two homes that were burned several days earlier by local fire departments that were working on their own training.

St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church donated the homes located on Highway 20. The homes would have been demolished to make room for an upcoming church construction project.

Jack Bierman, a Rochester fire fighter and member of the Task Force, helped obtain donations of furniture, clothing, curtains, appliances and other items to place inside the houses prior to the controlled burns.

“It’s a much better way to train,” said Bill Pieters, former Town of Burlington fire fighter and current Racine County fire investigator. “As close as we can set up a household scenario is what we want.” Most of the time houses are filled with wood pal-lets for controlled burns. Furniture, clothing and other items create a more realistic scenario for fire fighters and later, investigators.

Several different types of fires were set to give investigators experience with a variety of scenarios. Prior to one fire, the living room looked like any typical, albeit cluttered, living space – with books and bric-a-brac lining wall shelves, a large TV set, photos in plastic and glass frames, newspapers scattered across the wood coffee table and on the floor, and a pair of sofas.

Pieters and Bierman buried a mini-electric crock-pot in the corner of one sofa and a desk lamp in another as evidence of arson. The fire started in the sofa with the desk lamp, spreading throughout the room, blackening the ceiling, shattering the windows and sending poisonous gases throughout as a multitude of plastic items melted in temperatures that reached 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, or higher.

Two days later, investigator trainees scanned the room, trying to figure out what caused the blaze.

Investigators work in teams. One person takes notes on everyone’s observations, writing down details that may lead to the source of the fire.

“We look at the whole room first of all,” said Rob Robins, a Wind Lake fire fighter and investigator trainee.

Robins explained that the team looks for the least burned area of a room first, working its way into the most damaged area. The team looks for obvious signs, like burn patterns on the wall. Fire and smoke behave in specific ways—for example, smoke emanates up and out from the lowest point in a “V” pattern. This pattern on a wall almost literally “points” to the lowest point of burn, which is often the source of the fire as well.

Sometimes the source is relatively obvious, such as a pan of grease that accidentally overheated on a stove, igniting sur-rounding cabinets and traveling across the ceiling – perhaps into other rooms of the house.

“We’ve come across quite a few of those,” Pieters said, adding that the practice burn two days earlier gave fire fighters a realistic look at how quickly that type of fire spreads.

“It took less than 10 minutes for the oil to heat up…to where it ignited,” Pieters said. Once ignition took place, the oil vapors began burning, causing the oil to boil over, spreading the fire and adding more fuel.

“It took two (more) minutes for the room to flash over. It just amazed us,” he said.

Officer Paul Rakow of the Sturtevant Police Department and task force investigator said the ceiling temperature was most likely in excess of 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. At a person’s belly button, temperatures would have been 500 degrees, and at his or her knees, a bit cooler – the boiling point of water, or 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

The burned kitchen was a mess, with blackened cabinets pulled off the walls and the ceiling fan hanging from a few wires. Holes were randomly punched in the ceiling and walls. Sometimes, Rakow said, it seems like the fire department does more damage than the fire. However, fire fighters have to make sure there is no fire in the ceiling or walls, even after the obvious fire is put out.

Older homes built with balloon construction – that is, the walls are built straight up from the basement, with no breaks between floors, are particularly sus-ceptible to hidden fires in the walls.

Rakow said fire fighters have to “look around a lot more and a lot harder” to be sure all fire is out in this type of home, whereas newer homes are built with fire stops in the walls at each level.

Later during the training, Kan-sasville fire fighters Jeff Berard and Trevor Berard work as a father-and-son team, to determine whether a bedroom fire has suspicious origins.

Jeff carefully digs through a pile of burned clothing on a bed, unearthing a toaster.

“This would definitely be a suspicious fire because there is a toaster in the bedroom,” Jeff said. Further investigation revealed paper inside and around the toaster – also suspicious, he said. He looked through the clothing, and asked Trevor to bring in a hydrocarbon tester to determine whether accelerants like gasoline or lighter fluid were present.

While Trevor aimed the tester at various portions of the bed, Jeff found himself returning to the toaster several times, turning it around and over, until it hit him – a wire held the toaster switch in the “down” position.

At that point, the toaster became evidence, and law enforcement personnel would have been called had this been a real-life situation.

The hydrocarbon tester revealed presence of accelerant as well. Trevor made a note of this and cut away a portion of the mattress and clothing, also as evidence.

The hands-on training was invaluable, Boehmer said, and gave investigators the edge they need to get the job done. The task force is a great tool for solving fire mysteries – and a deterrent to would-be arsonists as well.

“We’re here to keep people honest,” Boehmer said. “And we’re also here to help.”


Although temperatures can reach an excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit when a house fire flashes, flames are generally not the cause of death in fire casualties.

“It’s the smoke that kills most people,” said Mike Boehmer, chair of the Racine County Fire Investigative Task Force.

Modern homes are filled with plastic products, from carpet to the laminate on kitchen cabinets, to white PVC pipe used in plumbing – and when plastic burns, it releases poisonous gases like hydrogen cyanide. Once inhaled, those gases can kill a person in minutes.

“That’s why smoke detectors are the first line of defense,” Boehmer said, adding that flames travel extremely fast in a house fire – so people need to get out as soon as the smoke detectors sound the alarm.

Families need to plan ahead by arranging a safe meeting place outside the house, in case of fire. And they should practice fire drills as often as necessary until everyone can get out of the house in two minutes or less, since that’s about all the time they will have in a real fire situation.

Smoke detector batteries should be tested and changed on a regular basis. Change the batteries twice a year at the same time clocks are turned back or moved ahead, to insure that they are functioning.



I'm a writer, editor, photographer and artist living in rural Southeastern Wisconsin. I grew up in Chicago, made my way to the deep woods of Northern Minnesota and then landed here among the cornfields and cows. It's quite simply my happy place.

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