As soon as Insp. Chris Kelly receives a phone call about a fire in Victoria, dozens of questions pop into his head.
How big is the fire? Will he be able to safely enter the building once the fire has been extinguished? Was there loss of life?
Almost as soon as those questions have popped into his head, Kelly has jumped into the yellow and white department van with a brief description of the fire from alarm room operators, and is on his way to the scene.
As a fire investigator with the Victoria Fire Department, Kelly is responsible for finding out the cause of fires that occur within the City of Victoria.
Once on scene, Kelly canvasses the area, speaking to witnesses, homeowners and firefighters. He also gets information by examining the behaviour and patterns of the smoke and the way the fire travels on the outside of the building.
Once the fire has been extinguished and it’s safe to enter the facility, the real work begins.
Kelly dons his personal protective equipment, grabs his flashlight, thermal imaging camera, shovels and hand brushes, and enters the facility where the fire started.
He takes pictures of the area, while simultaneously looking for evidence, working from areas of least damage to the most. Then comes the laborious and meticulous process of sifting through rubble and debris, and moving everything out of the area of origin (where the fire took place).
“The destructive nature of fire, that makes it very challenging because most of your trace evidence has been destroyed,” said Kelly. “We’re coming to a scene where it’s usually very dark because it’s been decimated by fire. There’s water in the room, there’s buried hazards and toxic gas. It’s a really inhospitable environment that we’re in.”
When searching for the origin of the fire, Kelly often looks for burn patterns on the walls. For example, a ‘V’ pattern of burning suggests a fire started at the base of something.
Then Kelly comes up with a hypothesis of how he believes a fire started — whether its with a match, candle or cigarette — and will test it, using documented research or will do a live burn which involves recreating the fire in a facility to ensure it reacts how he anticipated it would.
Some investigations take a few hours to complete, while others can take days or weeks. For Kelly, the most emotional cases are those in which someone or a pet has lost their life.
It’s a job that Kelly never expected to end up in. Growing up in Penticton, with a father who was a firefighter, he always dreamed of following in his dad’s footsteps. After high school, he completed a degree at the University of Victoria and got a job working with the city.
After a long road (which included applications for jobs with the Victoria and Saanich police departments), Kelly eventually ended up working for the fire department, doing administrative tasks before becoming involved in the inspections world in 2012.
“It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle that we’re collecting all these different pieces of evidence to come up with our main conclusion. It’s never the same and it always reacts differently,” Kelly said. “I like the diversity. It encapsulates several different things that I like. You have to be able to look creatively and analytically. You don’t know what you’re going to see.”
Kelly is one of five investigators with the department, who work on roughly 60 fires a year. He admits roughly 10 to 15 per cent of fires, investigators cannot determine the cause because there was too much damage or the structure was not safe enough for investigators to enter. But once he finds out what started the fire, it’s an incredible feeling.
“It’s gratifying for sure. It’s easy to not get the final solution. There’s a feeling of accomplishment when you complete the puzzle,” Kelly said.