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Fire investigators look for all possible evidence to determine cause

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REDDING, Calif. - Redding Fire Investigators say no matter if a fire starts in a home or in dry grass, the process of investigating and determining the cause remains the same.

Once a wildfire is contained, the work for firefighters is not fully complete until investigators narrow down the origin of the fire and determine the cause.

Local cities and agencies from all over the state, including the federal government, employ fire investigators throughout the year and play a critical role during wildfire season.

Craig Wittner and Pat O'Conner are the Fire Investigators for the City of Redding and are on call 24/7, 365 days a year for any fire activity.

Wittner said it doesn't matter if a fire starts in dry grass or even inside a home, the investigating process is the same and all comes down to knowledge and expertise.

"We're looking at where the fire started, that's the origin. Once we determine the origin, then we consider possible causes," said Wittner.

Wittner has been with the Redding Fire Department as a Fire Investigator for 13 years and said once he arrives on the scene of a fire he starts asking questions immediately.

"We're truth seekers. We're fact gathers, so witness information is pretty important. Any information that we receive from witnesses or any passersby or even our own fire crews can assist us in evaluating what happened, what caused the fire and who may be responsible," said Wittner.

Once interviews are complete Wittner moves on to look for evidence, narrowing down the origin of the fire. For example a fire burned near Market Street in August and the area was known for transient activity in the past. O'Connor said in that case the evidence lead him to the brush where another camp was discovered.

"The evidence can be anything you can think of. It could be a sample of fire debris which we may be looking for evidence of ignitable liquids," said Wittner.

O'Connor said a simple technique for wildfires is to examine rocks and grasses. Rocks will have charging on one side and not the other while grasses will bend in the direction the fire came from.

"The more fires, the more you recognize fire burns predictably, it destroys things predictably. So even if we receive great information from witnesses, fire crews, occupants etc. we still have to look at the fire scene and evaluate it," said Wittner.

Once the origin of the fire is determined, more evidence is evaluated to help narrow down possible causes. O'Conner said at this time they make sure to look at all possibilities.

"We rule in, rule out causes. We determine if it's accidental, intentional, natural, such as a lightning strike, or whether it is an incendiary type fire," said Wittner.

Wittner said if the cause of a fire is determined to be criminal in nature, he will finish up his report and submit it to the District Attorney's Office. They will use that report for possible charges and call on Wittner as an expert during a trial.

O'Connor said if some of the evidence is out of their area of expertise, they're never alone and can call on another investigator for support or even a specialist in a particular field to help narrow down the search for the cause of a fire.

"We're lucky in the field that we have colleagues to work with. It's not just myself, it's not just Investigator O'Connor, we have other investigators with CAL FIRE and other jurisdictions to work with and lend a hand and also to assist when needed," said Wittner.

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