Fire investigators hone skills at IAAI conference

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Stephen Rinaldi, senior fire and life safety coordinator for the Los Alamos Fire Department, takes a photo of the mock auto fire during fire investigation training at McGee Park on Wednesday.

FARMINGTON — Pops and hisses emitted from the burning Chrysler Town and Country minivan while a group of fire investigators observed the fire's behavior.

As coolant and other fluids leaked from the automobile, an alarm went off.

"What was that? Any ideas?" the class instructor James Kanavy asked.

"A/C," an investigator said.

"So, we're 12 minutes and 20 seconds into it before we had an A/C failure, high pressure loss," Kanavy said while several participants used smartphones to film the scene.

Pagosa Springs Fire Protection District firefighter Don Peterson, left, attended the class to advance his fire investigation skills.

Their attentiveness was part of an International Association of Arson Investigators-sponsored training program that combined classroom instruction and hands-on training in how to investigate vehicle fires.

Kanavy, a fire investigator for the Scott County Fire Department in Kentucky, taught the class this week as part of a conference by the New Mexico Chapter of the IAAI at McGee Park.

Earlier in the week, four vehicles donated by Highway 64 Truck and Auto Salvage were burned by different sources, and participants used the techniques they learned in class to determine the causes on Wednesday.

Fire investigators benefit from such training because it enhances their skills to determine whether a crime has been committed, Kanavy said.

"This gives them another tool in their toolbox – to be able to be aware, to know what to look for, to know how to investigate it," he said.

A participant at the International Association of Arson Investigators conference uses a flashlight to investigate the cause of a mock auto fire on Wednesday.

Fifty investigators from various agencies and businesses in New Mexico and Colorado attended the weeklong training.

Stephen Rinaldi is a senior fire and life safety coordinator for the Los Alamos Fire Department.

Since members of the department's investigation team vary in experience, the training puts them on a more equal footing while they learn the latest techniques, he said.

"It hones your skills," Rinaldi said.

San Juan County Fire Department volunteer firefighter Caitlyn Vecellio records information during a training session at McGee Park on Wednesday.

Don Peterson, a volunteer firefighter with the Pagosa Springs Fire Protection District in Colorado, said the lessons enhance his ability to investigate and determine the cause of vehicle fires.

"It gives you the opportunity to see if the story matches the evidence," Peterson said.

There was also a class about wildfires, attended by 11 firefighters from county, federal, municipal and tribal agencies.

Teresa Rigby, lead instructor for the course, said participants spent the week learning to investigate wildfires by classroom instruction and field exercises.

From left, Caitlyn Vecellio and Hunter Randolph, volunteer firefighters with the San Juan County Fire Department, douse a mock van fire on Wednesday at McGee Park in Farmington.

"Wildland fire is unique. The way that you read the indicators can be backwards from what they expect from the structural side because we have fires influenced by wind, slope, terrain and vegetation," Rigby said.

The field exercises help firefighters learn how to read indicators and train their eyes to recognize patterns to help determine a cause, she added.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at