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How a bonfire party became a case of alleged arson

November 01 2015

Forensic Science Interpreting The Evidence

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Fire Investigation

As November 5th approaches this is a cautionary tale of how a celebratory BBQ and bonfire party became a criminal investigation when a wooden hut close to the bonfire caught fire and was burnt down.

Two Marines had gathered with a few friends on the fields at their training centre for a farewell bonfire party and BBQ.  Around 1.30am the following morning the honoured guest and his friend burnt the party rubbish on the bonfire.  Then, having watched the bonfire burn down for a further 30 minutes, they doused the edge of the fire with water and kicked remaining debris into the centre of the fire.  CCTV recorded them leaving the site around 2.10am.

A call was made to the emergency services at 2.23am and the first fire appliance was on the scene at 2.33am.  Despite this prompt response, a wooden hut was destroyed and 3 further smaller fires needed to be extinguished, including the bonfire.  The two marines were charged with two counts of arson.

The fire experts at KBC have been vocal for some time on the falling standards in fire investigation, if it is done at all.  In this case, however, a fire investigator from the local Fire & Rescue service attended the scene ten days after the incident and compiled a sizable report.  He also undertook some small scale fire tests as part of his two day examination.  Unfortunately the scene had undergone a partial clean-up operation by the time the investigator visited, which hampered his assessment.  Despite not being able to assess the scene in its original state, however, the investigator’s conclusion was unequivocally that the fire to the building was a deliberate act and could not have been caused by flaming debris flying from the bonfire.

KBC fire expert Alan Henderson was asked to review the work of the fire investigator including the scene notes, fire tests and numerous photographs and witness statements.  Alan took his usual tenacious and diligent approach encompassing further questions about events on the evening of the party, the state of the hut and its contents and consideration of a weather report commissioned by the defence on Alan’s advice.

In summary, due to the damage sustained by the hut, Alan could not exclude the possibility of arson but he also concluded that it was a perfectly reasonable explanation that the fire was an unfortunate accident.  The investigator’s own tests demonstrated how easily adjacent dried vegetation could be set alight and one of the smaller fires extinguished on the night demonstrated that some burning pieces of debris could travel similar distances to that between the hut and the bonfire.  The proximity of what was essentially a giant naked flame so close to the wooden hut had concerned Alan from the outset.  Thankfully in the Military Court Proceedings, the defendants were acquitted on both counts of arson at the closure of the prosecution case.

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