Joe Towers

Joe Towers

A crash course in fire forensics

HUXLEY — In forensics jargon, they are called cremains. Short for cremated remains, they can turn a house fire into a crime scene when investigators know what to look for. More than a dozen firefighters, peace officers and police officers were out at a farmstead near Huxley on Friday as part of a four-day crash course in fire forensics.

HUXLEY — In forensics jargon, they are called cremains.

Short for cremated remains, they can turn a house fire into a crime scene when investigators know what to look for.

More than a dozen firefighters, peace officers and police officers were out at a farmstead near Huxley on Friday as part of a four-day crash course in fire forensics.

Sifting through the ruins of an old farmhouse burned to the ground earlier in the week, teams painstakingly searched through the ash and debris to piece together a mock crime scene.

Pig carcasses donated by a local Hutterite colony served as the victims.

Joe Towers, a fire investigator with Red Deer Emergency Services until five years ago and now heading his own company Global Forensics Inc., was among experts passing on their knowledge.

Towers said the program was put together after a fourth-floor arson fire in Red Deer a number of years ago. Fire investigators identified the points of origin and ignition sources for the fire.

However, when RCMP forensic officers arrived they were looking for different clues.

“They said, did you see the blood spatter? Did you see the blood on the walls going out of the apartment?

“We weren’t trained in that, so we didn’t see it.”

Likewise, the police investigators didn’t know how to pinpoint where a blaze began or what may have started it.

Out of that experience, a joint fire and RCMP course was put together.

Besides sharing investigative techniques, participants learn about forensic photography and interviewing, collecting evidence, blood spatters and other blood evidence. An RCMP anthropologist is brought in to demonstrate how to find bones among debris or fields. An entomologist explains what bugs can teach investigators about crime scenes and pinpointing times of death through fly larvae.

“Bugs and bones is what we call it,” he said of that course section.

The first day of the course involves scenarios where there has been no fire.

Participants are taught how to move about a scene without contaminating evidence. How to document and photograph scenes and collect foot and tire imprints.

Firefighters specifically are taught how to knock down a fire without destroying potential evidence.

At the end of the program, all had to poke through the ruins of the house to find evidence of carcasses, even shell casings or bullets that had been used to put down the pigs, which had not been healthy.

Later, a burned-out vehicle containing a pig carcass was to be used for a similar purpose.

Finding remains is no easy task. Searchers clothed in coveralls, rubber boots and faces masks pore through the debris. Fragments of white bone can show little distinction from chunks of masonry or other building materials.

However, despite the near-complete destruction, fingerprints and blood evidence were found in the ruined home.

Trochu fire Capt. Bill Wohl, who is also a fire investigator, said the exercise has a lot of value to his 22-strong department.

“The biggest thing I get out of this is how I can assist with the law enforcement end of it, and preservation of evidence and the way we do things.

“The old saying is firefighters look down and police look up,” he said.

“This taught us to take more care and be more aware,” he said.

His volunteers were also able to set the fires and show police and others how they spread and what clues are left behind.

Westlock County peace officer Erik Nickolson found it eye opening how much damage there was to sift through and the state of some of the remains. Some of the bone evidence crumbled as soon it was picked up.

“At the scene, you definitely only get one shot at this so you have to make sure that you’re really looking and pay attention.

“One of the biggest things I’ve found is the bones look a lot like everything else. Unless you know what you’re looking for, it can be quite difficult.”

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Glen Carritt organized a United We Roll Canada convoy around May 2019 that travelled in 2019. An independent review said he breached council code of conduct rules multiple times. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Former Innisfail town councillor breached code of conduct many times, says review

Consultants say 29 of 36 alleged breaches by Glen Carritt had merit

Members of the Red Deer RCMP downtown patrol monitor for drug activity and property crimes. (Advocate file photo).
Two peace officers are training to join Red Deer’s downtown police patrol unit

This “integrated” unit will be the first in Alberta

Students and staff at Gateway Christian School wore pink Wednesday in support of Pink Shirt Day, a worldwide anti-bullying initiative that was started in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer Public Schools)
Students, central Alberta community celebrate Pink Shirt Day

Mayor of Sylvan Lake Sean McIntyre supports anti-bullying cause

City of Red Deer has nearly doubled its active COVID-19 case count since Feb. 10 and has 75.6 per cent of the Central zone’s active cases. (File photo)
Another new high: Red Deer hits 574 active COVID-19 cases

Province reports 13 new COVID-19 deaths, 430 new cases

Meteor spotted over Edmonton, Alta., on Feb. 22, 2021 by several, who took to social media to share their surveillance camera captures. (@KixxAxe/Twitter)
VIDEO: Fireball meteor streaks across sky, spotted by early-morning risers in Alberta, B.C.

Videos of the quick streak of light flashing across the sky before 6:30 a.m. MST

Calgary Flames goaltender David Rittich (33) makes a save on Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Jimmy Vesey (26) as Flames' Christopher Tanev (8) and Joakim Nordstrom (20) defend during first-period NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday, February 24, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
‘Misunderstood’ Nylander ties game late, scores winner as Leafs beat Flames 2-1 in OT

‘Misunderstood’ Nylander ties game late, scores winner as Leafs beat Flames 2-1 in OT

Team Canada skip Kerri Einarson yells to her sweepers at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary, Alta., Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Young Quebec team in the hunt to join Einarson, Homan in Hearts’ championship round

Young Quebec team in the hunt to join Einarson, Homan in Hearts’ championship round

A crane is used to lift a vehicle following a rollover accident involving golfer Tiger Woods, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. Woods suffered leg injuries in the one-car accident and was undergoing surgery, authorities and his manager said. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Golf without Woods? Battered leg brings it closer to reality

Golf without Woods? Battered leg brings it closer to reality

Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien looks towards the ice as his team takes on the Ottawa Senators during second period NHL action in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. The Canadiens have fired head coach Julien and associate coach Kirk Muller. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Montreal Canadiens fire head coach Claude Julien, associate coach Kirk Muller

Montreal Canadiens fire head coach Claude Julien, associate coach Kirk Muller

Canada midfielder Sophie Schmidt (13) attempts a shot on goal during the first half of a SheBelieves Cup women's soccer match against Argentina, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Phelan M. Ebenhack
Canadian women exit SheBelieves Cup on losing note, blanked 2-0 by Brazil

Canadian women exit SheBelieves Cup on losing note, blanked 2-0 by Brazil

Supporters pray outside court in Stony Plain, Alta., on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, as a trial date was set for Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church. He is charged with holding Sunday services in violation of Alberta's COVID-19 rules and with breaking conditions of his bail release. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Trial date for jailed Alberta pastor charged with breaking COVID-19 health orders

Trial date for jailed Alberta pastor charged with breaking COVID-19 health orders

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Jason Nixon, government house leader and environment minister, after Nixon is sworn into office in Edmonton on April 30, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta eyes recall legislation, focuses on COVID-19 aid in spring sitting

Alberta eyes recall legislation, focuses on COVID-19 aid in spring sitting

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie attends a a news conference in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, February 28, 2019. The CFL faces more challenges in its 2021 return than it did last year when it was forced to cancel its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
CFL will have to appease more levels of government to get 2021 protocols approved

CFL will have to appease more levels of government to get 2021 protocols approved

Most Read