Rookie thrown into the fire

New VFD investigator sees unusually high number of fatalities early in career

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter



Four fatal fires so far in 2014

• A cooking fire spread to consume a Sifton-area house on Jan. 10. Donna Franchino, 58, who was trapped in a bedroom, died. Firefighters rescued her from the two-alarm house fire, 15209 N.E. 74th St., but it was too late.

• On June 12, firefighters raced to a 12:30 a.m. fire that ripped through six units of Sunpointe Apartments, 900 S.E. Park Crest Ave. The intense heat from the blaze prevented rescuers from getting to the third floor, where hours later they found the body of Gavino S. Rodriguez, 52. Investigators have narrowed the cause to smoker’s carelessness or an electrical fire.

• Ten days later, 29-year-old Lacie E. Adams fell asleep with a lit cigarette, which sparked a fire in a two-bedroom unit at Courtyard Village Apartments, 2600 T St.

All three people died of smoke inhalation.

• On Wednesday, George E. Henderson, 75, was rescued from his burning house and taken to a hospital with critical injuries. He died Friday. The fire, at 7610 N.E. 142 Ave. in the Sifton area, is being investigated by the Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office.

About a week into his new job as a deputy fire marshal, Zane Norris went to the scene of a Jan. 10 fatal fire.

During the next several months, the number of people who had died in fires in Vancouver rose to four.

“It was heart-wrenching, seeing the families and the devastation,” he said even before the fourth victim’s death Friday. “It keeps you up at night.”

Four fire fatalities in a little more than six months is an anomaly for Vancouver, which generally sees between zero and one fatal fire per year, said Vancouver Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli. Her office has investigated three of the four fatal fires.

And for Norris, a 24-year-old recent college graduate, the experience of going to each fatal fire scene is starting his career off on a rare and interesting note.

“Some fire investigators can go 20 years without going to a fatal fire,” Lead Deputy Fire Marshal Chris Drone said.

“It’s extremely rare,” Norris said. “It makes me wonder, how’s the rest of my career going to go now?”

Norris, who graduated from Portland State University last year with a degree in criminal justice, is spending his first year on probation to learn the ropes.

“To be a good fire investigator, you have to be equal parts detective, scientist, engineer and law enforcement (officer),” Drone said. The work can be challenging, he added. “Sometimes, you don’t have the physical evidence.”

While Norris learned a lot of detective and law enforcement skills in school, he is still learning the fire science components of the job by working closely with Drone and by attending trainings, including those led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the National Fire Academy.

At the beginning of the year, Norris shadowed fire officials. Over time he has slowly performed more investigative duties and now investigates some fires by himself.

For example, Norris was recently called out to determine what caused a fire that destroyed several pieces of furniture stored behind a dumpster at an apartment complex. He spent considerable time at the scene and is still investigating the case.

Called to the scene

When there is a fire in Vancouver, the fire department responds and the incident commander decides whether to call a fire investigator to the scene.

Investigators, also called deputy fire marshals, look into all major fires, multiple alarm fires, suspicious fires, fires that involve injuries or death and any fire where the responding firefighters can’t determine the cause.

Norris said investigators try to get to fires as soon as they can because seeing the fire in action can help determine its cause and origin.

On his way to any fire, Norris listens to emergency radio traffic to keep track of what firefighters are doing. What they did, such as breaking a window to ventilate a room, changes the way the fire spreads. That information can help with Norris’ investigation.

Once he arrives on the scene, he goes to work.

“I always take a mental picture of everyone who is around watching the fire,” he said “Arsonists love to watch their work.”

Once the emergency is over, he dives into the investigation — interviewing the first-responding firefighters and witnesses, taking photos to document the 360-degree scene, and analyzing the V-shaped burn patterns left by the flames.

To find the fire’s origin and cause, investigators “go from the least affected area to the most affected area,” Norris said. “Once you’ve found the general room or area, then you need to take every single possible ignition source into consideration and rule them all out.”

Norris said he has learned a lot from Vancouver’s five fellow fire investigators.

“I’m really lucky being able to be trained by such experienced investigators,” Norris said.

He’s not just laying it on thick for his bosses.

The Vancouver Fire Marshal’s Office has an exemplary record for investigating fires that are intentionally set, with a 33 percent arrest rate in arson investigations. The national average is 13 percent.

Norris and Drone credit their agency’s success rate to partnerships with agencies such as Portland Fire & Rescue, ATF and the Vancouver Police Department.

Fire investigators don’t have the power to make arrests, so they work closely with Vancouver police officers who are part of a joint arson investigation team.

Impossible to forget

Norris added that although his first several months on the job have been akin to starting at a sprint, he welcomes the good experience he’s getting. He said going to fatal fires has only reinforced his career choice.

“It really adds to the motivation to be good in this line of work,” he said.

The deputy fire marshals investigate causes of fires so they can educate the public.

Along with doing fire code inspections, part of Norris’ job is running Fire Corps, a program that trains volunteers to be advocates for fire prevention by educating Vancouver residents.

The three leading causes of residential fires, he said, are unattended cooking, smoking and candles, in that order.

While one fire remains under investigation, Vancouver investigators have determined the causes of two of the fatal fires this year. One started as a cooking fire and the other was caused by smoking. The fourth fire is being investigated by the Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office.

“What hurts the most is knowing (most of) these fires can be prevented,” Norris said.

The best way to prevent these fires is to never leave cooking unattended and be wary of combustibles. Keep only noncombustible candle holders and extinguish candles before leaving the room. Smokers are advised not to smoke in bed or while on medications that might cause drowsiness.

They are also cautioned to fully extinguish cigarettes in water or a noncombustible container.

Norris takes the experience he’s had so far and puts his best effort into preventing people from unintentionally causing fires that he knows can turn tragic.

“Once you have seen the faces of the injured and the deceased, you really can never forget those faces,” Norris said. “In the back of your mind, you’re playing those faces every single time that you go out and work prevention and that really gives me motivation to be the best I possibly can at my job so I don’t see any more of those faces.”