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Thankfully, no one was killed. But was the fire an accident? Was it arson? Most important of all, who pays?
The fire was about two kilometres away, but veteran Fire Captain Rob Labossiere says he could see the orange glow as soon as they hit the street. “When we got there, we could see three structures on fire, a large half-constructed condo building and two houses on either side. Only three or four minutes had passed from the initial call, but the flames were already rolling 60 feet up into the sky.”
The fire was consuming two century-old houses and a half-built condo complex. The condo building was constructed mainly with oriented strand board, or OSB – a type of strong, inexpensive sheathing that has taken the place of plywood in residential construction. Strand board is a big money-earner for Canadian exporters (about one-third of the OSB used in North America is produced in Canada), but it has made a firefighter’s job harder and more dangerous, since it burns faster and hotter than other materials. Tonnes of OSB stacked vertically in a half-constructed building, ventilated with empty windows and doors, make an instant bonfire – so when the fire trucks parked, the heat pouring off the buildings was so intense that nearby traffic lights were melting and the firefighters had to take shelter behind their trucks.
Rescue 4 moved further down the street than the pumper, and as firefighter John Baunemann ran toward it, he saw someone waving at him from inside the burning house.
Neda Procner and her sister Helen were trapped in the inferno. They had lived there for more than 20 years, paid off the mortgage and built ramps for Helen’s wheelchair. Helen says she woke up to the banging sounds of nearby hydro transformers exploding and the horrid glow of flames. “My sister Neda ran downstairs and shouted, ‘The condo next door is on fire!’ We couldn’t get out the back door or the front door because the porches were on fire, and we couldn’t breathe because of the smoke. It was black because the power went out, and the flames were spreading fast. My sister cried out, ‘We’re going to die.’ And I knew she was right. I figured we had about 30 seconds to live.”
In ordinary circumstances, a fire crew’s strategy is to contain a fire and reduce property damage. But everything changes when lives are in danger, and Labossiere had to issue a difficult order. In a voice uneven with suppressed emotion, he says he ordered Baunemann and the rest of the crew into the house. “It was a tough thing to do,” he admits. “You work with these people. They have families. When you ask them to go in, you just pray they’ll get back out.”
“It all happened so quickly,” says Baunemann. “Less than 90 seconds after our arrival, we were masked up and advancing on the house. Neil Bazan hit the front porch with the hose, but the heat was unbelievable. Our suits are rated for over 1,000 degrees Celsius, but my fire department shoulder patches were on fire and I could see Shawn Willim’s suit off-gassing. We saw the women right inside the front door – and that was key because we would have had a hard time finding them in the darkness and smoke. One lady was ambulatory, and I yelled at her to run. Their nightgowns must have been soaked [from the firehose] because they somehow never ignited. Sean and Neil grabbed the lady from the wheelchair and carried her out, and the paramedics rushed them both to the hospital. We also had to go to the hospital, with facial burns.”
As more firefighters and trucks arrived, a choreographed team of first responders swarmed to the scene. Police blocked off the street. The provincial fire commissioner and the city’s own fire marshal started their investigations. Plainclothes detectives from the arson unit moved casually through the crowd, asking questions and photographing the onlookers. Forty-five firefighters spent the night knocking down the blaze, and at daybreak the three buildings were blackened skeletons, surrounded by yellow tape and filthy water. Early estimates placed the damage at $4.5-million. And as the pumpers and ladder trucks rumbled back to their stations, the questions began: What happened? How did the fire start? Who’s going to pay for this mess?
After a fire, insurance adjusters determine the amount of damage and whether the claimant is covered by their policy.
In the case of the Wolseley fire, three different structures were destroyed, with collateral damage to hydro wires, traffic lights, signs and stained-glass windows on Westminster United Church, across the street. Numerous insurance companies were involved, and the pie chart of liability would be drawn by an array of issues. Where did the fire start? In a neighbour’s garage? In a garbage bin? In the half-built condo? Each scenario suggested different liabilities, and a lot of money was at stake. Adjusters rarely have the resources required to pursue those questions, and investigative reports from city and provincial fire marshals are usually too superficial to satisfy the minute legalistic concerns of insurance companies. What the insurer needs is a private investigator, an experienced sleuth who can respond at fire scenes on short notice and produce a detailed report so unassailable that it can trigger a multimillion-dollar payout or stand up, if necessary, to skeptical examination in a courtroom.
That’s when the phone rings in Ken Swan’s office.
Swan works for Origin and Cause, a private company that has become Canada’s top fire investigation firm. Founded in 1991 with six full-time employees, it now has 10 offices across the country with a roster of some 45 employees, 35 of whom are forensic experts. Some are engineers, others ex-cops, chemists and retired fire marshals. They are paid a combination of salary and bonuses based on the revenue they generate. A profitability bonus is also paid to employees at the end of each fiscal year. (As a private company, Origin and Cause does not disclose its revenue and profit figures.) Origin and Cause bills for its time and related expenses, and its fees are not linked to financial outcomes for the client. As president Mazen Habash puts it, “Our focus is not to save insurance companies money in a direct way; it is to provide an unbiased opinion based on a scientific analysis of the facts. If we consistently provide a solid investigation, our clients will benefit financially in the long run.” (Citing client confidentiality, Origin and Cause would not name the insurance companies involved in the cases described in this story.)
In fact, fire insurance payouts have declined sharply in the last 10 years, which Habash suggests is due to a more rigorous analysis of dubious claims. (Surprisingly, there is little record-keeping on fire incidents and payouts nationally.) “Our internal statistics show a decrease in arson, most likely because of the growing strength of the fire-investigation industry. Arson is a very costly problem, and insurance companies will invest considerable resources to investigate fires.”
Origin and Cause also investigates explosions, structural collapses, sprinkler system floods, refrigeration failures and other expensive claims, but about 75 per cent of its workload involves fire. Large swaths of inner-city Winnipeg are composed of century-old wooden homes, highly vulnerable to accidental fire. And the city’s high poverty rate and corresponding problems with family disarray make it one of the country’s hot spots for youth crime and arson. It’s hard to be definitive in the absence of national statistics on fire incidents, but Habash estimates that about 10 per cent of urban fires are intentionally set, with the rest caused by faulty wiring, heating and cooling, cooking, cigarettes and so on. The Province of Ontario (which does compile fire statistics) records about 12,000 loss-inducing fires per year, and the national figures are likely proportional, so Swan and his colleagues are kept hopping.
Swan, 57, spent 20 years in the Winnipeg Police department, where his experiences as a burglary and arson detective served him well when he left the force in 1997 and became a provincial fire commissioner. In his various roles, he has investigated more than 2,000 fires and explosions. It’s a common misconception, he says, that investigators are paid to find something that will get the insurance company off the hook. “If you make a stupid mistake, you’re still covered by insurance. You wouldn’t believe the number of fires caused by amateurish wiring. One of the most dangerous guys in the city is the home handyman, and the second most dangerous guy is his brother-in-law.”
Swan’s sociability, precise work and deadpan humour earned him friends in the field over the years, and while attending fires for the province, he often met investigators from the private side. “At fire scenes you tend to run into the same people,” he says. “So I got to know people from Origin and Cause, principally Richard Kooren, who is vice-president of the company. Fire-scene investigators get along quite well together. The insurance companies they represent may end up suing each other, but the investigators are just trying to gather facts and figure out what happened. So I enjoyed working alongside Richard, and he occasionally mentioned that I might want to consider joining Origin and Cause one day. I didn’t realize that by ‘one day’ he actually meant ‘tomorrow.’ So I kept unwittingly snubbing his overtures, until they made me a direct offer and I joined Origin and Cause in 2007.”
Swan is now the company’s Winnipeg-based western manager. (The company has several reps in its new Calgary office, and is planning to open an office in Vancouver.) The basement office in his neat suburban ranch house is decorated with miniature police and fire vehicles from around North America, a citation plaque for heroism on the job, and a demented black cat forever trying to distract him from his paperwork. While much of his work is in Winnipeg, he spends a lot of time on the road; his go-bag is always packed. He has investigated losses ranging from small claims of several thousand dollars to catastrophes costing more than $200-million. Last year he completed 135 investigations; in a recent six-week period, he examined various garage fires around the city, flew to Northern Manitoba to check out a gutted restaurant, drove to Dryden, Ontario, for another blaze, investigated a burned sports arena in Plum Coulee in Southern Manitoba, rushed to a midday fire at a gas station near Kenora, Ontario, was headed to Fort McMurray but got diverted to a propane plant explosion in Flin Flon, Manitoba, spent two days in Winnipeg crawling around inside the stinking, blackened carcass of a parked semi-trailer tractor, and devoted the better part of a week working on the near-tragic blaze in Wolseley.
Swan’s pickup is a mobile warehouse of tools – forcible-entry and cutting equipment, laser devices for distancing and levelling, evidence containers, an accelerant detector, pens that can write on any surface, digging tools – and he can rent or buy anything else he might need, ranging from floodlights to heavy equipment. Arriving on scene, he suits up in boots, hard hat and safety vest, and starts asking questions. “You start with the obvious questions and work your way in,” he says. “Who reported the fire? What did they see? What colour was the smoke? Were the flames visible? Did they notice anyone in the area? Every tidbit of information is a piece of the puzzle.”
The various agencies working in emergency response sometimes unwittingly work against each other. In this case, the fire department regarded the gutted building as a public safety hazard and ordered it knocked down. But Swan intervened and requested that he be allowed to take responsibility for the site for several days so that he could conduct a thorough investigation. That permission was granted, and the structures were reinforced and fenced off.
“When we start out, we are looking for the origin. Finding the origin will narrow down the possible causes. Even a badly burned building will have physical clues – spalled concrete, melted metals, arrow-shaped smoke plumes pointing to a hot spot. Fire burns upward, so you chop down into a floor to find the lowest point of charring. You also have to factor in the wind direction, the fuel load [i.e., the amount and flammability of available fuel] and a lot of other variables that you need years of experience to evaluate. Vehicle fires, for example, can be difficult because there are so many variables in play. Most of our cases require a blend of science and insight.”
The condo fire was so hot that much of the potential evidence was destroyed. So to help in the search for the point of origin, Swan called head office and requested the help of a colleague, one with four legs. The next day, a Dutch shepherd named Smoke flew in from Ancaster, Ontario. Smoke’s handler, Sid Murray, has more than 30 years of training experience. “I’ve trained dogs to detect land mines, search for lost people, sniff out drugs in high schools, patrol for bombs at airports, or find smuggled guns at border crossings,” he says. “Smoke specializes in accelerant detection. As I put it, ‘Where there’s fire, there’s Smoke.’ He can find microscopic traces of diesel fuel, paint thinner, kerosene, lamp oil, alcohol and numerous other ignitable liquids. And he’s trained to ignore the glues, caulking compounds and all the other materials you find on typical construction sites.”
At the fire scene, onlookers take pictures of Smoke with their phones and chirp at him, but he doesn’t care. He just sits there staring at the building. “You can pat him if you want, but he’ll ignore you,” says Murray. “He’s not here to socialize.” At the age of 8, Smoke is getting on in years. Murray says he is training a replacement, but Smoke doesn’t like being phased out. “It makes the poor old guy miserable,” Murray says. “He loves his job and he can’t stand to watch the other dog work.”
While Swan investigates the edges of the gutted building, Smoke sits at Murray’s side, trembling. When it’s time, Murray gestures and the dog darts into the fire site, systematically sniffing the scorched earth and charred lumber in a grid pattern. Some “K9” trainers motivate their dogs with a snack, but Murray says he doesn’t use food because it can encourage a dog to fib. Smoke adheres to higher principles. “Smoke is a dream employee,” says Murray. “He doesn’t take vacations and he never asks for a raise. He has saved millions of dollars for insurance companies and all he wants in return is a few words of praise and his ball.”
Along the back of the building, Smoke pauses, sniffs the ground, veers off, then returns to the same spot and digs purposefully. Swan wades in and scoops up a sample of the dirt, bagging it as evidence. “I’ll send it off to our lab for analysis,” he says. “The authorities have labs but the results can take months – a long wait for policyholders and insurers. We have our own lab and we can turn around the results in less than a week.”
For the rest of the day, Smoke watches keenly from the sidelines while Swan works his way further into the twisted wreckage, taking photographs, making notes, bagging potential evidence. Fire captains, insurance reps and investigators from other companies drop by, ducking under the yellow tape and greeting Swan by name. He interviews the construction workers, focusing on the status of the project, their protocols for storing chemicals and tools, and whether any of them smoke cigarettes. He determines that the building was not yet wired, and checks with Environment Canada to see if there was lightning in the area on the night of the fire. The basement of the building is too dangerous to enter, so he rents a cherry-picker crane and dangles in the bucket high above the wreckage, photographing the collapsed walls and water-filled excavation.
After several days of sleuthing, a picture begins to emerge of what happened the night of the fire. Smoke the dog scratched at a couple of spots in the northwest corner of the building, suggesting faint traces of an accelerant. Swan’s analysis of the wreckage indicates that a fire started above those spots and raced through the half-built shell, destroying the three buildings and almost causing the death of the women next door. Many of Winnipeg’s arson blazes are started by kids. And in this case Swan learns that someone saw kids jumping off the building at 2:30 in the morning. (About two hours after Labossiere’s crew responded to the Wolseley fire, someone torched a garage behind the nearby heritage home of feminist pioneer Nellie McClung, causing about $80,000 in damage.) The arson unit sometimes manages to track down young perpetrators. But kids under 12 can’t be prosecuted. And while teenagers can be prosecuted, chances of financial recovery are slim to none. So that route doesn’t add up to a solution. As Swan puts it, “it’s more of a social problem than one for the cops and courts.”
There are two categories of arsonists besides kids – irrational adults and rational adults trying to commit fraud. There are no public national figures on the cost of fraudulent insurance claims, but Habash of Origin and Cause estimates that 8 per cent to 12 per cent of the claims in his business fit the description. Honest policyholders pay for fraudsters and arsonists through increased premiums. Abrupt downturns in the economy tend to increase rates of fraud. Restaurant owners find themselves without customers, landlords have difficulty finding tenants, and the owners of expensive vehicles may suddenly find themselves out of work and faced with big monthly payments. It’s still too soon to determine if the slump in the oil patch has produced a spike in fraudulent insurance claims, but Swan says he wouldn’t be surprised if that did happen. “People sometimes make bad decisions under financial pressure,” he says. “They decide that a jerry can and a lighter is an easy way out, but no matter how careful they are they usually get caught. They’re amateurs competing against people who do this for a living.”
On the other hand, a dodgy-looking claim can also be redeemed by a pro like Swan.
During the same week as the Wolseley conflagration, fire crews rushed to a partly boarded-up car wash in north Winnipeg, where a motorist passing by in the early hours of the morning noticed flames pouring out of the roof. The building was unoccupied and looked like an easy target for arsonists. The firefighters cut a hole in the back wall of the building and shot water into the interior, which proved empty except for a Peterbilt semi-trailer tractor. The truck was a total loss and the building was damaged to the tune of $200,000. Swan showed up at daybreak and met Jack Van Dam, a former Mountie who now investigates unusual vehicle claims for Manitoba Public Insurance. (Manitoba is one of four Canadian provinces with government auto insurance, with some of the lowest rates in the country.) Swan and Van Dam chatted amiably but didn’t exchange hunches about the cause of the fire. “I don’t want to hear anyone’s theories until I’ve completed my investigation,” said Swan. “You need to keep an open mind.”
It’s a chilly morning, and Swan is dressed in heavy coveralls and steel-toed boots. He starts his investigation by walking around the perimeter of the cinderblock building, looking at the blackened walls. Holding a miniature voice recorder, he dictates notes about wind direction, heat damage and the absence of any signs of forced entry. “I’m just taking it all in,” he explains. “Starting on the outside and working in – looking at the walls and determining that it didn’t start here and it didn’t start there. As Sherlock Holmes put it, you have to eliminate the impossible; then whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth.”
He calls the owner of the building and determines that a truck driver rented the bay as a parking garage. The likely scenarios, he says, number three. If the fire proves to have originated in the truck, its insurer, Manitoba Public Insurance, will be on the hook for at least $200,000 to repair the building. If the fire started in the building, then the building owner’s insurance company will have to pay to repair the structure and replace the truck. If the trucker deliberately burned his rig, MPI will pay him nothing, the owner of the building will get replacement value from his insurer, and the police will be knocking on the trucker’s door. Swan says the “cop sense” he developed during two decades of working the streets comes in handy when he is interviewing claimants and piecing together an investigation.
“Cop sense means keeping your initial opinions out of it. Things aren’t always what they seem to be. A guy with a long criminal record can still have an accidental fire. And a so-called upstanding citizen can still commit a crime. This claim obviously raises some flags. The truck was parked inside a locked building. The engine was cold. The building’s electricity was shut off. Only a few people had keys, and no one broke in. Did the truck catch on fire all by itself? This might look like a suspicious case, but you can’t jump to conclusions. You have to let the evidence tell you what happened.”
Inside the building it’s a stinking cave, a collapsed mess of melted steel. It’s a cold and nasty workplace, but Swan brings in a generator and lights and tools and spends two full days clambering around the monstrous carcass of the truck, cutting it open, prying off its skin, poking at its innards with flashlight and gloved hands, climbing beneath the truck and doggedly searching for the origin of the fire while soot rains down in his face. Finally, he dissects his way deep into the engine compartment and finds a copper cable, as thick as a child’s finger, with a melted end. “Why did this cable melt?” he asks.
Because of the terrific heat inside the engine compartment?
“No, that would have melted the cable all along its length. As everyone knows, copper melts at 1,981 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hotter than the hottest engine fire. Something else melted it.”
Swan says the power is never really off in modern vehicles. Even if a vehicle has been parked for weeks, computers and security systems are still alive, sending power up and down wire capillaries. “A high-mileage semi-tractor like this one will often suffer from hairline cracks in the cables and worn wire harnesses,” he says. “The flexing and vibration of the engine will cause cable ties to come loose and wires to saw against each other. Eventually the copper will be exposed, causing a short circuit and a fire. An [industrial] vehicle that’s been parked for hours and days can suddenly burst into flames. It happens more often that you’d think.”
Swan concludes that the suspicious-looking fire was in fact accidental. Manitoba Public Insurance promptly sent a cheque to the trucker, who had been weepy with frustration over the loss of his livelihood. A few weeks after the fire, he had a new vehicle and was back on the road.
In the aftermath of the Wolseley fire, Swan’s finding of arson meant that his client insurance company paid out to the developer. “As long as the policyholder showed due diligence in safeguarding their property, there’s usually no difficulty with an insurance company,” he says. His prediction: “In this case, all the different policyholders will get compensated by their own insurers.”
The Procner sisters were saddened to lose their home of 20-odd years, but grateful to have escaped with their lives. Swan says he has no idea how much his client ended up paying the developer, and doesn’t care. “I’m only interested in determining the cause of a fire.”
Even if he cared, he’s too busy responding to calls. On a recent summer weekend, while everyone else was enjoying a getaway to one of the many lakes outside Winnipeg, he was climbing around inside the charred interior of Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral on Main Street, one of the city’s most historic and beautiful churches. The fire department was calling it a probable arson, but Swan said he wouldn’t comment until he was finished his investigation.