Crime scene technology can help researchers understand how a wildfire started

Published: July 26, 2018

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A university in Alberta is turning to crime-scene technology to help understand the cause of disasters such as wildfires and oil spills.

A $550,000 mass spectrometer is being used by Gwen O’Sullivan of Mount Royal University in Calgary. She says the tool is used in crime scene investigation but its ability to detect chemical compounds at low levels makes it useful for other areas.

In terms of a fire, O’Sullivan says the spectrometer can find if a flammable liquid was used to start a fire, allowing more understanding of if fires were deliberate or natural.

“You’ve heard of crime scene investigations – this is the same idea but in an environmental context,” said O’Sullivan, an environmental science professor and environmental forensic researcher.

“There’s roughly 1,200 fires a year in the summer in Alberta. Half of those are from man-made causes. If those ones were deliberately set using an accelerant or an accelerant was accidentally placed and ignited, we’d be able to determine that.”

With the mass spectrometer working with equipment already at Mount Royal the team of researchers can create a 3D analysis to show how a fire started.

“You can use it for food quality. You can use it for arson investigations, criminal investigations, human health implications. The tool itself is quite flexible.”

While it is a law enforcement tool, most police forces cannot afford a mass spectrometer and there is one caveat to having one:

“With the amount of data that’s generated, you get thousands and thousands of data points, so unless you have the time and energy and experience to process the data, it can be quite challenging.”