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Accident or Arson? In-depth training brings fire investigators to Tucson

NW Fire District hosts first-of-its-kind training
Trace Lawless explains the progression of a fire engulfing a minivan as part of the International Association of Arson Investigators' training.
Posted at 10:45 PM, Jan 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-28 00:45:26-05

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — The Northwest Fire District put out nearly 100 car fires in 2021, but it’s often unclear whether those fires are mechanical malfunctions or arson.

This week, the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) held the first training of its kind in Southern Arizona, drawing fire investigators from several states and throughout Arizona.

The training took place at Northwest Fire’s Training Center just outside of Tucson.

On Thursday, the course’s students viewed live car burns and investigated previously burned cars for clues.

Fires not only destroy evidence; they also create it.

“You think of this as a puzzle and you’re putting pieces of the puzzle together working back to that original location where the fire originated,” IAAI Training and Education Chair Trace Lawless said.

Lawless explained to the students that the way fires start—and where they start—affect how and where flames will then burn through a car.

That can help investigators determine whether fires were merely an accident or part of a crime.

“It’s very important we bring it down to the local level where the boots meet the ground,” Lawless said. “This group of 37 students this week are superb. Some of the best I’ve dealt with in the past couple years. They have a lot of background and a knowledge of fire in general. Now they’re just furthering their education in motor vehicles.”

Lawless says the current economy and rising car prices only fuel the chances for intentional car fires and insurance fraud.

“We gotta be able to collect that physical evidence and be able to present that to a prosecutor or DA and say, scientifically, here’s the evidence, and this fire could not have started any other method,” Lawless said.

Northwest Fire District’s Marcela Hammond helped bring the training to Tucson, where she and several NWFD investigators participated.

“Networking with other investigators is one of the most important things in our career,” she said. You develop different knowledge. You obtain different knowledge and different skills from your peers. Every state does things a little different, all with a common goal, of course, which is to determine the origin and cause of this fire… And that’s the beauty of this, to have this wide range of knowledge.”

Hammond hopes the IAAI training can become an annual event for NWFD.