Humane efforts by homeowner coupled with amateur heat source spelled trouble.

At first glimpse, the destroyed home looked like an igloo covered with gobs of ice and snow. Could this be the handiwork of an arsonist? The insurance company called us in to determine just that. What exactly caused this fire that burnt down a home and left the homeowner with an estimated $250,000 worth of damage?

Upon inspection of the property, our forensic engineering team uncovered a strange bit of evidence. Several skeletons of what appeared to be large birds were in the remains of the home's fire-damaged porch. This porch, originally elevated from the ground by beams placed on cement blocks, was attached to a once beautiful, expensive ranch home that somehow caught fire and burned to the ground. The homeowner, a widower, wasn't home when the fire occurred.

Before beginning our analysis, we had to thaw the physical evidence in a way that didn't destroy anything. Our solution incorporated plastic panels akin to a greenhouse cover. Heat, via special multiple heaters, melted the snow and ice, and a sump pump, placed in a small shallow opening, removed the resultant water. We then began a very thorough inspection of the remains.

We carefully examined the fire damage throughout the house but couldn't find any evidence of the cause of the fire. There weren't any problems with the hot-air heating system. Also, the chimney and lining were in good condition. The home had a fireplace but it wasn't in use before the fire. We ruled out careless disposal of smoking cigarettes, since the owner didn't smoke. There was not even any evidence of gas, propane, or charcoal grills. We examined the electrical panel as well as the conductors going to outlets. All of the electrical outlets, their branch circuit wiring, and the overcurrent protective devices were proper.

We proceeded to look at the fire-damaged screened porch, adjacent to the house. There was no evidence of arcing or beading of conductors that served the porch lights or receptacles. However, we did uncover something suspicious-an improvised and unusual lighting fixture. This fixture consisted of what was once a small wooden base holding an upright pipe 2 ft long and a metal clamp that supported a socket containing a heat lamp. The lamp was broken. This portable fixture was located in a hole burnt through the porch floor. By method of exclusion, we focused on this heat lamp as the potential cause and origin of the fire.

We concluded the flimsy metal clamp didn't have much clamping force. Coupled with the heat produced by the lamp, the poor construction caused the clamp to move. The lamp was originally positioned about 10 in. above the floor. The movement of the clamp must have placed the lamp in contact with the indoor/outdoor carpet. This initially heated the carpet, and proceeded to affect a layer of linoleum under the carpet. Then flames spread to the plywood deck and floor joists.

We built an identical lighting fixture and, using a similar clamp and lamp, conducted a series of time tests to see if we could replicate the cause of ignition and subsequent burn. The tests in our laboratory confirmed our suspicions: The relatively heavy bare heat lamp supported by the skimpy clamp did move over a period of time. The lamp's radiated heat relaxed the tension in the clamp's spring, and the weight of the lamp pushed the total assembly down. The repositioned lamp made contact with indoor/outdoor carpet causing it to start burning. The rest, as they say, is history.

This brought up some interesting questions, though. First, why did someone place the heat lamp so low to the floor? Second, why did the owner leave it in the ON position when he went shopping? And third, why did someone place the lamp on the porch? These questions may seem to lead to a suspicion of arson. But, we were quickly convinced otherwise.

The homeowner kept a flock of ducks on his property and fed and trained them as pets. When one of the ducks wandered under the porch and almost froze to death one cold winter evening, the homeowner's devotion proved strong. He brought the duck to his local veterinarian for emergency treatment. Eventually, the duck made a full recovery after an extensive regimen of therapy.

On that cold winter afternoon of the fire, the homeowner took steps to keep his flock of ducks out of harm's way. First, he placed plastic sheathing over his screen porch. Then he bought a heating lamp and installed it in a combination support clamp/socket, which he clamped to a small pipe. He then switched on the 250W heat lamp and herded the ducks onto the porch, satisfied this would protect them from the elements. He left his house to go shopping, but upon return found his home burnt to the ground and his pets dead. Unfortunately, his innocent humane efforts led to this tragedy.

So what can we learn from such a situation? This incident illustrates that a "quick" solution, if not carefully thought out, can sometimes cause a serious problem. The temporary and amateur installation of a clamped light, left ON unattended, certainly doesn't represent prudent thinking.

This article reminds the author of an important lesson from the U.S. railroad systems. Each railroad gives its employees a book of rules. Rule one states; When in doubt, always take the safest course. This unfortunate incident proves the validity of this rule.