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JBLM’s fire inspectors solve puzzles of ash

Many blazes can be prevented, but arson can strike anywhere

Published: 12:27PM April 17th, 2014

Ever wonder how the cause of a fire is determined when all that’s left is ashes?

The team of fire inspectors at Joint Base-Lewis McChord doesn’t let the damage of a fire stand in the way of finding the smoking gun behind a blaze.

“Inspecting the scene of a fire is a science,” said Ed Chavez, fire inspector at JBLM at Station 107. “It’s a puzzle, and the patterns left by a fire tell a story. As we put the puzzle together the picture becomes clear. But some puzzles are harder than others.”

Chavez and the nine other inspectors serving JBLM not only know their jobs, but are also good at them. They are the 2009 winners of the Department of Defense’s Fire Prevention Program of the Year, and were recently told they are the 2013 winners of the U.S. Army Installation Management Command Central FPPY.

“It’s good to know our hard work is paying off,” Chavez said.

To become fire inspectors, they are trained at the DOD’s Fire Academy with 40 hours of in-class instruction and also attend annual courses.

As trainees they do a lot of hands-on work, including setting blazes and examining the patterns in the ashes.

“All fire patterns are the same, yet they are all different,” Chavez said.

Chavez’s office bookshelf holds about 50 books on fire science and fire codes. They’re not collecting dust — he continually reviews and refers to them.

When fire inspectors examine the scene of a fire, they first look for the point of origin. Sometimes the source is easy to spot because of a cone pattern.

“The cone is a charring pattern, left after the fire is extinguished, that points to the source of the fire,” Chavez said.

The most common cause of fires DODwide is unattended cooking flames, said Chavez.

Recently, a JBLM resident was cooking inside and stepped out to tend his grill. Within a few minutes a fire had started inside, Chavez said. A neighbor came by to tell him about the smoke; he hadn’t even realized the fire had started.

“Depending on what’s in a building, it only takes 30 seconds for a fire to start and destroy an entire structure,” Chavez said.

Last year there were five house fires on-base within a six-week period: two started with faulty wiring, one by a cigarette, one was set as arson and one was never determined. The three main reasons for arson, Chavez said, are revenge, financial gain often through insurance policies, and sometimes, people are just fascinated with fire.

“The best thing you can do to combat arson is to know your neighbors,” Chavez said. “If you see something, say something.”

Virtually all fires can be prevented, said Chavez. For example, residents missed the opportunity to report suspicious behaviors related to last year’s electrical fires when better observance might have prevented them.

One involved an extension cord and both included flammable liquids near the source of the sparks. One thing led to another causing fires fueled further by flammables.

“Don’t use an extension cord as a permanent source of power,” Chavez said. “Instead use a surge protector, and keep flammables way from heat sources, such as electrical outlets and cords.”

JBLM’s inspectors aren’t only needed after a fire has been extinguished. They also do building inspections to prevent future fires. They go into buildings and look for factors that could cause a fire, making sure problems are corrected.

“The first thing people say when we come into a building is, ‘Oh great, fire department,’ but we’re not here because we enjoy getting people in trouble, we just want to help protect their lives,” Chavez said.

William Silva, another fire inspector assigned to Station 107, agrees the job is sometimes difficult, especially when he sees the devastation fires can bring to people’s lives. But the good he can do outweighs those times for him; he said he still loves his job.

“When we go to a house fire, they’ve lost everything,” Silva said. “It can be hard, but it makes me feel good to be able to find out what happened.”

Chavez said it is optimal that inspectors are assigned and work on military installations so they are familiar with local codes.

“On base, we are required to use the most up-to-date fire codes,” he said.

Chavez said because of good leadership, effective training and robust public information outreach, there hasn’t been a fire fatality on Joint Base Lewis-McChord since 2001.

Although they’ve been successful saving lives, the professionals can’t inspect everywhere on JBLM.

“Many people don’t realize JBLM is the seventh largest city in Washington state,” Chavez said.

Those living and working on the installation have to do their parts in fire prevention. Fire inspectors brief to all new base residents at Waller Hall and conduct training throughout the month in units and organizations.

“The more you know, the less we go,” Chavez said. “It’s cheesy, but true. We want to teach people not only how to prevent fires, but how to get out in the event of a fire. Always have a fire plan with two ways out, and practice that plan.”

To meet JBLM inspectors and fire fighters, stop by Armed Forces Day May 17. They will be at Installation Safety Day May 22, where inspectors will be demonstrating proper use of fire extinguishers and sharing other useful information. They will also be at and Freedom Fest July 4.