Firefighters from all over Alaska gathered in Sitka in April for the Alaska Association of Fire and Arson Investigators conference and training. But in order to learn how to put out a fire or investigate its source, someone has to start one. This time, it was the arson investigators themselves.

Listen to the audio version of this story that aired on 4-28-23 or read the extended version below.

A fire engine idles in the middle of a mostly empty gravel lot. It’s parked next to what looks like a freshly constructed “tiny home,” except the sides of the house have been removed revealing the contents of each petite room, just like a dollhouse; a recliner in one room, a television and sofa in another, and a pink dog bed on the floor.

A small fire starts to crackle behind the recliner. The blaze grows, and soon the house is engulfed in flames. And the people standing around it, including quite a few firefighters, won’t put it out right away. They want this house to burn.

This is called a “burn cell” exercise. It’s part of a recertification and training course for fire and arson investigators across the state of Alaska. They came to Sitka in mid-April for their annual meeting, and to learn about all of the hottest topics in fire today.

“A lot of times when you watch the movies, you’ll see the guy throw the cigarette down, and the whole thing goes up in flames. That’s not accurate. Go figure,” says Dawn Dodsworth. She’s a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), and she’s one of the leading arson investigators in the country.

Dodsworth oversees arson and explosives for much of the West Coast, including Alaska. She and her colleagues are the specialists local fire departments can call in if they need help with a complex fire investigation. Throughout the week, they trained attendees on a variety of topics, including a thorough look at what can actually be ignited by a cigarette. 

“When you’re looking at the fire cause, you as an investigator want to formulate a bunch of different hypotheses as to how the fire could have started,” Dodsworth says. “And sometimes that is smoking materials. So the students have been learning what types of substrates the cigarettes can actually ignite versus not, because there’s a lot of myths out there, especially in the movies. People see it and they think that’s gospel truth.”

Dodsworth has a PhD in forensic science, but she started her journey in a fire hall, like most of the training participants.

“I was a firefighter in New Jersey for 10 years. I did 10 years of structural firefighting and then 15 years of wildland firefighting,” she says. “And while I was going to college for my undergraduate degree, I was an intern for ATF in New Jersey, and I interned with the certified fire investigator there.”

“And as a young kid going through college trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, which sometimes I still feel like I’m trying to figure that out, I actually was like, this is the best of both worlds,” she adds.

She comes to conferences like this one to provide guidance and training, but also to meet the people she could be working with in the event of an emergency in the region. 

“The arson explosives groups would not exist if it wasn’t for our state locals calling us and requesting our assistance,” Dodsworth says. “I mean, these guys really drive everything that we do. So I think as a fire investigator, it’s critical for me not only to go out and meet my state and locals because I don’t want to meet them for the first time at the scene of a tragedy, I want to have a prior existing relationship with them.”

Throughout the conference, investigators spent hours on topics like how to approach fires with fatalities, to the challenges lithium ion batteries present in an arson investigation.

“That’s really a hot topic nowadays. Just because as you see on the news all the time, there’s all kinds of battery fires related to scooters and vehicles and laptops and cell phones. And we’ve had planes that have had to be diverted and emergency landing because of these lithium ion batteries,” Dodsworth says. “So it’s a hazard for the fire investigators and the firefighters, but it’s also a large hazard for the public.”

Sitka Fire Chief Craig Warren says that battery fires are a growing area of concern for his department, because a fire started by a large lithium battery can’t be put out easily with water. They’ve responded to a couple in recent years- an equipment fire on the UAS campus, and an apartment fire started by a vape pen. What they learn at this conference helps Warren set local fire policy–and based on the training this week, Warren says they’ll approach a lithium ion battery fire differently in the future.

“When a car catches fire, and it’s an EV, an electric vehicle, we’re going to sit back and not be firefighters. We’re going to be traffic control. Because even if we can cool it enough to stop all of the other cells from going off, they may not stop going off. They could go off up to a month later,” Warren says.

“And where do you charge your car? In the garage attached to your house,” he adds. “So now I’ve got added complications for the firefighters…We’re going to throw a tow chain through the back windshield of the car. I’m going to drive backwards and yank it out of the building and let it burn off to the side, so that I can maybe save your house.” 

The firefighters aren’t just learning how to stop fires. They’re learning how to pick up on subtle details after a fire has occurred, to determine the cause. That’s what the “burn cell” exercise was all about– setting the scene for investigative training.

They had to start with a building that was as realistic as possible. Warren says Dodsworth’s team sent them the plans for the structure ahead of time, and the assistant fire chief spent two weeks building it. Then they collected furniture donations from the community. 

“We try to make the compartment, or the the room, look like a functional room in your house with similar materials. If we were using couches from 1970, we wouldn’t have the burning that we have nowadays, because we didn’t have the plastics back then,” Warren says. “House fires didn’t go up near as fast as they do now.”

The instructors then set each “cell” on fire separately, using a different method for each one, like a cigarette in a wastepaper basket or a Molotov cocktail. 

The work they do is far from easy, and it often goes hand-in-hand with tragedy. But tonight, at the Granite Creek pit, the mood is lighthearted. The investigators laugh and revel a bit in the process of lighting each flame, and the firefighting that’s about to happen in a safe, contained environment.

“They do this all the time, and they’re still like kids,” someone laughs.

As the fire intensifies, cell phone cameras come out. One firefighter smiles and takes a selfie.

After a few minutes of burning, firefighters douse the blaze, and a black cloud billows forth out of the cell. Their colleagues cheer them on.

Days later in the training, fire investigators will return to the site of the “burn cell,” to examine the charred rooms, and try to determine whether the fires were started by a piece of paper stuffed inside a toaster, or a sparking laptop battery. But not likely a cigarette tossed into a tub of gasoline. That only works in the movies.