Dirty work uncovers fire's secrets

FIERY FOCUS: Russell Dickson is a fire risk management officer for the New Zealand Fire Service.
FIERY FOCUS: Russell Dickson is a fire risk management officer for the New Zealand Fire Service.

Fire can be devastating and to the untrained eye its causes can be mystifying. But not to Russell Dickson. Reporter Emma Whittaker sat down with the fire risk management officer who spends his days investigating some of Auckland's most serious fires.

Every fire tells a story and it's Russell Dickson's job to find out how it goes.

"I jokingly say men, women and children are the biggest causes of fires," he says.

"Often they don't just start by themselves, but it's not always obvious how they start. We do the detective work."

Every investigation starts with those involved being interviewed.

"People's emotions do run high, especially when there have been fatalities, and sometimes they are feeling guilty and don't want to tell you things.

"After a while you learn to read body language and the environment."

The next step is the scene examination. The first goal is finding out where the fire started.

"We start at the front door, often on our hands and knees, just scraping through clearing the floor looking for all sorts of evidence. It's a dirty job.

"Just by reading the fire patterns you can normally pin down where it started to one corner. Every fire tells a story."

Hi-tech gadgets like a tool that tests the air for accelerants can help point to the cause.

The Fire Service is something of a family business for the central city based investigator.

He joined the Onehunga volunteer fire brigade in 1967 and later became a career firefighter before turning to investigation work in 2000.

His father Alan joined the same brigade in 1936 and dedicated most of his life to it.

A total of 13 members of Mr Dickson's family have been part of the Fire Service since.

"The investigation side is a continuation of operational stuff. It's just a way to keep my hand in," Mr Dickson says. "I do miss the operational side, but I still go to lots of fires rather than just sitting at a desk all day."

One of the most challenging cases he has investigated was a massive blaze at the Onehunga Mitre 10 in 2008. The fire reduced the store to a pile of ash and is believed to have been deliberately lit but the arsonist was not caught.

Asbestos in the building made the fighting and investigating the blaze even more dangerous.

"All fires are challenging, the Mitre 10 one really stands out because of the size of it.

"We just didn't know where to start. We went through the whole place and eventually found the one room where it started."

Part of the Hobsonville resident's role as a fire risk management officer is to help building owners improve fire safety.

Often as a result of a fires he spends time educating people as well.

"We can practise and preach the story as much as we like, but it still amazes me the number of people who don't have smoke alarms," he says.

Auckland City Harbour News