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Mystery solved: How 3D laser tech cracked the 36 Pit Fire

Using this new technology, fire investigators were able to quickly and efficiently map the scene of the fire


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By FireRescueOne BrandFocus Staff

On September 13, 2014, one of the largest forest fires in Oregon’s history raged across 5,521 acres just east of Portland. Dubbed the 36 Pit Fire, the fire led to a mass evacuation of residents from their homes and required firefighters to be activated from neighboring regions to help fight the fire.

FARO 3D Laser Scanner at the scene of the 36 Pit Fire (Photo courtesy of Bryon O'Neil)
FARO 3D Laser Scanner at the scene of the 36 Pit Fire (Photo courtesy of Bryon O'Neil)

But amid the fire and smoke, an unlikely new tool was helping firefighters determine the cause of the fire, and in the process helped the department deal with the media, determine the cause of the fire and clear the shooter suspected of intentionally starting the fire.

A few days after the fire started, the US Forest Service called upon the Clackamas County Sheriff’s office to help them investigate what was suspected to be an intentional fire. The Sheriff’s office sent Deputy Bryon O’Neil, with five years of experience in forensic investigation, to diagram the fire’s path and determine the cause. What they didn’t know was that Deputy O’Neil would be using a relatively new technology—a 3D laser scanner—to investigate the fire, cutting down on the time it took to investigate and providing an unprecedented level of detail.

‘It looked like a warzone’

The conditions of the fire presented an issue for investigators. Days after the fire started, acres of forest were still burning. “When I arrived, it was still an active scene,” says O’Neil. “It looked like a warzone. The roads were still on fire a couple of days after the initial fire. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”

Fortunately, the 3D laser scanner was able to operate in the smoky, dangerous conditions of the fire with ease, helping investigators quickly determine the source and cause of the fire. O’Neil was also able to capture data known as point clouds, which otherwise would have been difficult or impossible to capture without the 3D laser scanner technology. 

“There was a spot, 47 feet up the side of a cliff that the laser scanner was able to reach without trouble,” O’Neil said. “With a total station, someone would have to go up there and place a marker.”

The scanner was also able to collect much clearer data despite the active fire conditions.

“It was still very smoky,” O’Neil remembers, “but the laser scanner got through the smoke no problem. It was clearer than the photos we took.”

Faster scanning, greater versatility

The 3D laser scanner represented a technological advancement in the Sheriff’s Office’s ability to collect information from crime scenes. Before 3D laser scanners, investigators at crime scenes like the 36 Pit Fire origin site could only capture what they thought was important at the time. Whether they used hand measurements or a total station, they could only collect the data they specifically intended to. But as the investigation progressed, often times they would find there were other important details they didn’t record. And days later, it was impossible to get that information from the scene.

 “The beauty of the laser scanner is the data is all there,” says O’Neil. “You mess up, you go back to the scans and the point cloud data is all there. You can just go back to the scan and try again.” The FARO Focus3D laser scanner investigators used was able to capture 360 degrees of the scene in both color and black and white.

The sheer amount of data the 3D laser scanner can collect simply dwarfs more traditional methods, and it was a critical tool in determining the origin of the 36 Pit Fire. Without 3D laser scanners, fire and criminal investigators would have had to collect around 150 data points over the course of a couple of days on the scene of the fire’s origin (an area about 200 ft. by 300 ft.) using multiple methods. However, during the fire investigation using the 3D laser scanner, investigators were able to capture 12-million point clouds in under an hour.

Improved safety and lower costs

At the 36 Pit Fire investigation, and fire scenes in general, the laser scanner represented a safer option for the investigators. Because the 3D laser scanner required much less time to investigate the scene, it limited the firefighters’ exposure to dangerous carcinogens and unstable environmental conditions.

From an administrative perspective, that reduction in time also translated into a reduction in the man hours (and personnel) required to investigate a scene. Deputy O’Neil was able to investigate the scene without requiring additional Sheriff’s office personnel.

A tool for dealing with the media

An unanticipated benefit from using 3D laser scanning at the 36 Pit Fire scene was its use in media relations. The fire was a huge story, and the possibility of arson was tantalizing to a media contingent that was in full-fledged circus mode.

“One of the biggest indirect benefits of using the 3D laser scanner,” says O’Neil, “was being able to show the scene to the media.”

As anyone in public safety knows, in the absence of information, the media tends to find or invent what they aren’t told. The ability to share highly-detailed 3D images and provide the media with a wealth of information and images to broadcast satisfied their needs and helped prevent distraction to firefighters still focused on putting out the fire. The media was able to get accurate and useful information from the fire service, in a form they could use, and that made a huge difference in how they interacted with the fire service.

In the 36 Pit Fire investigation, the investigators determined the fire was an accident and the suspect had indeed done everything he could to prevent the spread of the fire after it was ignited during legal target shooting. Use of the 3D laser scanner in the investigation played a major role in quickly and decisively determining the cause and origin of the fire. At the same time, the use of the 3D laser scanner reduced the exposure of investigators to a dangerous environment, helped the Forest Service deal with the media, and provided proof that exonerated the suspect. All in the fraction of the time it would have taken to investigate the scene using traditional means. 

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