Fire Investigations in Alaska and the Complications of Cold Weather

Ernie Misewicz

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Oct 11, 2022

The Alaskan environment poses truly unique challenges for fire investigators on a regular basis. Investigators encounter weather conditions not duplicated in many places in the world. We operate in freezing temperatures roughly eight months out of the year with extreme temperatures ranging from -20 F to -45 F. Coupled with long hours of darkness ̶ up to 19 hours a day during the winter solstice ̶ these temperature extremes cause a multitude of problems for fire investigators and equipment alike.

In many ways, performing a fire investigation in cold weather is no different than in warm weather. Whether the temperature is minus 40°F or 80°F above, the same steps noted in NFPA 921 must be taken and the same procedures followed. However, severe cold, heavy snowfalls and dangerous ice build-up makes everything more complicated and time-consuming – from accessing a scene to traveling to and from a location via airplane. This can lead to frustration and poor decision-making on the part of the investigator. The following are some of the challenges faced when investigating fires in Alaska.

Equipment Effectiveness, Availability and Costs

Access to equipment is a problem in most areas of Alaska. While most fire scene excavation equipment is available in major communities, from simple hand tools to larger excavators, the availability of some equipment is limited or non-existent in more remote communities. In smaller communities, such as Utqiagvik/Barrow, heavy equipment must be shipped in by boat, which can be challenging during winter months.

The impact of cold weather on equipment is another concern. The extreme cold lessens the effectiveness of equipment, especially electronic items like flashlights and cameras. Equipment must be warmed up to keep it functioning. Moreover, very few heavy equipment operators keep their equipment indoors during the winter. Most equipment will be parked outside in mid-to-late October and will not be started until mid-to-late April. The companies that actually keep equipment ready need time to deploy the equipment.

Costs associated with equipment can often get expensive. For example, large fresh air heaters are effective but somewhat costly to operate. Having a 1 m BTU heater at a fire scene for roughly 8 hours uses about 32 gallons of fuel. With current prices of heating oil at $5.65 per gallon, the heating cost would be about $180 just for the fuel. Then add in the costs for renting and moving the heater as well as the costs associated with having a contractor or restoration company set up a tent over the structure or cover windows to keep heat in.

Investigator Health and Safety

Working in the arctic can be dangerous, therefore, investigator health and safety is paramount. As noted in NFPA 921, Chapter 13 (Safety), the fire ground atmosphere encountered as part of our normal work changes rapidly, may contain a combination of respiratory hazards, and can be an immediate danger to life and health.

Specifically, access to fire scenes is more challenging and creates a new level of safety concerns. The arctic weather conditions can produce anywhere from 2-5 inches of ice or 2-5 feet of snow, making the simple task of doing a 360 degree walk around the scene an arduous effort. The weather also helps create conditions that produce hidden hazards, such as holes, depressions and down power lines.

The safety of the fire scene is also dependent on the structure, the aspects of the fire and fire suppression efforts. Heavy snow loads and significant ice build-up on already structurally compromised buildings may weaken the structure creating a precarious and dangerous situation. Depending on how much water is used, fire suppression efforts may create ice build-up problems at the scene, increasing the likelihood of slips, trips and falls as the investigator walks on uneven, frozen, slippery surfaces. The soft, fluffy, fiberglass insulation bat can also become a frozen, sharp object that can easily cut the investigator.

Additionally, we struggle with our winter gear while working the fire scene. It is a must to stay warm, however, the cold temperatures in combination with many layers of clothing makes it difficult to move around and do our job. Things like thick winter gloves make it challenging to grab and hold on to items. Using a shovel, rake, pry bar or ax can become a safety issue if you can’t hold on to it.

Finally, the impact of the cold is physically exhausting, making fatigue a serious issue for investigators. Watching our work-rest cycle and staying hydrated is extremely important. Using work-rest cycles also helps keep equipment somewhat warm and functional.

Documenting, Collecting and Recovering Evidence

Gathering evidence and documenting a scene in cold temperatures presents a number of obstacles. We use a lot of modern technology, like recorders, iPads, digital cameras and scanners. But rudimentary tasks like writing with a pen can be problematic in cold temperatures. Visibility is another issue. Under normal circumstances, fire scenes require the use of artificial lighting. But throw in long days with no daylight and things become complicated.

“Ice fog” is a unique difficulty that Alaskan investigators face. Composed of tiny ice crystals, ice fog can form when temperatures fall below -30 degrees, taking visibility down to zero. Exceptionally strong temperature inversions (i.e., cold air below, milder air above) that develop during arctic winters are perfect for ice fog formation but are also especially sensitive to air pollution. Automobile exhaust, vapors released from power plants, and even the moisture exhaled by people and animals instantly produce ice fog. This fog is present during and after fire suppression efforts, making photography difficult if not impossible right after suppression.

Then there is evidence. Normally we look for, gather, and analyze evidence to help develop our theories and hypotheses. But in our cold climate, evidence is difficult to locate and extract from fire scenes. Because most fires are suppressed using water, and heat is usually lacking at the fire scene due to routine power disconnection, fire debris becomes frozen. Digging and chopping through the ice to gather evidence ultimately becomes a daunting, time-consuming task. Once recovered, it is almost impossible examine on site and must be taken to an area to thaw before being examined and packaged for shipment to a lab.

In sum, Alaska’s vast land mass and rough terrain as well as its severe cold climate and limited lighting conditions provide some unique challenges for fire investigators who have ultimately learned to adapt and overcome. But cold weather is not just an issue for Alaskan fire investigators. Gathering, documenting and recovering evidence in cold weather can be a difficult prospect for all investigators. Learn more about Jensen Hughes’ comprehensive fire investigation services and how our in-depth knowledge of fire science can help establish origin and cause of fire in any climate for any industry.

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About the author

Ernie Misewicz
Ernie Misewicz is a Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator with over 38 years’ experience in fire scene examinations to determine origin and cause.