Fire cause investigation

Fire cause investigation is part of our service offering. We also investigate fires related to particularly demanding sites, as well as the regulatory basis and practical implementation of the structural fire safety of the damage site. Our experts have successfully investigated numerous complicated fire cases both domestically and abroad. 

In most fires, the cause of the fire is quickly determined. More detailed investigation is needed if the cause of the ignition remains unclear, or if we want to know why the fire was able to spread. Our assignments usually come from insurance companies or from property owners. For example, we investigate fires where the owner is suspected of burning the building intentionally or through negligence. It is also often a question of apportioning liability if there is reason to suspect that construction work has been carried out in breach of regulations or that maintenance related to fire safety has been neglected. In extreme cases, the building has been so improperly designed or constructed that the insurance company is completely relieved of its liability.

Fire cause investigation – what and how do we study?

Our main tasks in fire cause investigations are to determine the causes of the fire and its progression, review structural solutions and defects during construction in accordance with the rules and regulations of the time of construction, and investigate omissions and deficiencies related to building operation and maintenance.

Our experts are not among the first to go to the scene of a fire, because most often someone else will investigate the actual cause of the fire. If there is reason to suspect a crime, fire cause investigation is always up to the authorities. Usually, the cause of the ignition is clear, but not always. Sometimes there are more views on the probable cause of ignition. If the cause of the fire remains unclear or there are several possible causes, and they are controversial, fire investigation experts may be needed.

Satu Holopainen and Teemu Karhula at the fire scene investigating the cause of the fire
Satu Holopainen and Teemu Karhula at the fire scene investigating the cause of the fire.

In most cases, more relevant than establishing the cause of ignition is to look for an answer to why the fire was able to spread. Fires ignited from a small spark can destroy everything in their path and cause enormous damage. In the worst-case scenario, the fire spreads like a rapid and violent storm and the rescue team has no chance of getting it under control. In such a situation, our job is to find out the causes that led to the spread of the fire.

At its simplest, we compare the construction of a building to how it should have been done under regulations. We review the old regulations and drawings and determine whether the implementation was carried out in accordance with the regulations at the time of construction, and draw conclusions about the causes of the spread of the fire based on the research material collected from the fire and drawings of the building.

In more challenging cases, or if the causes that contributed to the ignition and progression of a fire are to be investigated accurately and thoroughly, we use fire simulations. We model the fire site with its structures and materials, simulate the propagation of the fire from the moment it ignited, and compare the virtual end result with reality. If they match, the results of the simulation show what happened and for what reason. Our experts are familiar with construction techniques and materials typical for different decades, so we know how to model structures and interpret drawings taking into account the time of construction.

What have we learned from the clearing cases?

The purpose of a fire cause investigation is not only to find out the causes and consequences, but also to gather valuable information about the behavior of the fire. The lessons learned can be applied in the fire engineering design of future projects. Simulating real fires often reveals very interesting chains of events that would not be noticed by solely looking at building drawings. Among other things, we have learned that sprinklers may not work, even if the building around them burns to the ground if the fire bypasses them and spreads through a room without sprinklers, and if smoke clearance fails, the smoke from a fire confined to one small room can destroy all the equipment and machinery in the huge industrial hall, causing damages worth seven figures.

Why those fires have ignited?

The possible causes of fires are innumerable and all of them are unpredictable. For this reason, an important goal in fire safety planning is to limit the spread of fire, to ensure safety evacuation from a burning building, and to minimize the damage caused by fire. If these goals fail, either in design or implementation, the consequences are truly disastrous.

After all, fire safety planning is a relatively young field of expertise. In the old days, plans were drawn up by architects, or perhaps a fire chief or a fire inspector. If anyone even thought about the whole thing in the first place. Sometimes they simply lacked the skills, other times the importance of fire safety might not have been fully understood and the plans were careless. When we have investigated fires of old construction sites, we have way too often seen how things have been left undone or fire safety regulations have been interpreted negligently. Buildings simply have not been built and implemented as they should have been according to plans and regulations.

Over the years, we have investigated the causes of fires and their consequences in the ruins of industrial sites, warehouses, production facilities, sawmills, hotels and detached houses, and in many cases damage would have been avoided by strictly following the professional fire consultant’s plans and by supervising construction work more closely.