06 October 2015
After 43 years of fire service, Fluvanna County’s unofficial arson investigator can spot a suspicious fire when he sees one.
Richie Constantino, chief of Lake Monticello Volunteer Fire Department, checks out a fire pro bono for the county every month or two, determining just what happened and whether anyone’s to blame.
“See that?” he asks as he points eagerly to a photo of nothing but incomprehensibly burned ruins. “That’s an inverted V pattern right there. That’s arson.” Or, “Look at that beading. It was an electrical fire. No one’s to blame.” The photos flash by on the screen, ash and dust and cold twisted metal, telling a story only a trained eye can discern.
“Look at that photo,” Constantino said as he pointed to the blackened remains of a public address system, wired into the wall of a building and hopelessly burned. “See the drip pattern?”
Someone had doused the PA system in accelerant, he said, and set it on fire in an attempt to make the burn seem electrical in nature. But – aside from the noticeable drip pattern – Constantino saw the inverted V.
“There are two types of burn patterns, and every fire’s going to display one,” Constantino explained. “V patterns. A normal fire burns in a normal V pattern. A fire in its incipient stages grows and starts to spread out. That’s a V pattern. I’ve had some classic ones – as soon as you walk in you see that V, and it points right to where the fire origin was.”
But there’s an opposite V pattern, Constantino said. “Most of your damage is down low and it burns upward. That tells me some type of an accelerant was used, because it spreads out fast and reaches high temperatures,” he said. “You have the most intense fire in the beginning down low because of the accelerant, then it burns in an inverted V.”
Though Constantino admitted these are general rules, he said the patterns can shout to him clear as day from the blackened swaths of burned-out wall. Sometimes as soon as he sets foot in a recently-extinguished building he spots the V pattern he’s looking for.