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.”

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

Just Posted

Chris Scott, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe, was put in handcuffs after an anti-restriction protest Saturday in the parking lot of the business. (Screenshot via The Whistle Stop Facebook page)
UPDATE: Central Alberta cafe owner arrested after anti-restriction protest

The owner of a central Alberta cafe, which was the site of… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer now has 911 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre's expansion project is still a high priority, says Alberta Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer hospital ICU admissions stable, but rising, says surgeon

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre’s intensive care unit is in better… Continue reading

Alberta recorded a single-day record of over 57,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered. (Photo courtesy Alberta Health Services Twitter)
Alberta hits daily record of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered

Central zone has administered 111,735 doses of the COVID-19

FILE - A firefighter wears a mask as he drives his truck. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File
VIDEO: Flames rip through Edmonton-area seniors complex, but no fatalities

ST. ALBERT, Alta. — Fire has destroyed part of a retirement complex… Continue reading

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, is setting off a social media reaction with his calls to stop non essential shopping, such as "buying sandals at Costco", with this photo of his worn sandals, which he published to social media on Saturday, May 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Dr. Robert Strang, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Nova Scotia’s top doctor sparks meme with caution on non-essential shopping

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s top doctor has launched a social media meme… Continue reading

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Canada's chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Tam warns that full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Canada’s chief public health officer reminded Canadians on Saturday that even those… Continue reading

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour conducts drills during NHL hockey training camp in Morrisville, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
NHL relaxing virus protocols for vaccinated playoff teams

The NHL is relaxing virus protocols for teams that reach a threshold… Continue reading

Canada skip Kerri Einarson directs her teammates against Sweden in a qualification game at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canada’s Einarson eliminated at curling worlds after 8-3 loss to Sweden’s Hasselborg

CALGARY — Canada’s Kerri Einarson was eliminated at the world women’s curling… Continue reading

Jennifer Coffman, owner of Truffle Pigs in Field, B.C., poses beside her business sign on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in this handout photo. Her restaurant and lodge have been hit hard by a closure of a section of the Trans-Canada Highway and by the British Columbia government discouraging Alberta residents from visiting during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jennifer Coffman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘Why we survive’: B.C. boundary towns struggle without Albertans during pandemic

Jennifer Coffman didn’t expect to get hit with a double whammy at… Continue reading

A courtroom at the Edmonton Law Courts building, in Edmonton on Friday, June 28, 2019. The effect of the coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact on the Canadian justice system warn a number of legal experts. The Alberta Court of Queen's Bench announced Sunday it would adjourn all scheduled trials across the province for at least 10-weeks limiting hearings to only emergency or urgent matters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton mother found guilty of manslaughter in death of five-year-old girl

EDMONTON — An Edmonton woman was found guilty Friday of manslaughter in… Continue reading

A Statistics Canada 2016 Census mailer sits on the key board of a laptop after arriving in the mail at a residence in Ottawa, May 2, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Statistics Canada sees more demand to fill out census online during pandemic

OTTAWA — Statistics Canada says the response to the census is higher… Continue reading

Travellers, who are not affected by new quarantine rules, arrive at Terminal 3 at Pearson Airport in Toronto, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Ottawa will create a new digital platform to help in processing immigration applications more quickly and efficiently after COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for a faster shift to a digital immigration system, the immigration department said. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Ottawa to create new system to tackle delays in processing immigration applications

Ottawa says it will create a new digital platform to help process… Continue reading

Most Read