Curt Cogan, who heads up the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Wildfire Investigation Team, is hiking through a tangle of heavy underbrush just off a rural stretch of highway north of Brainerd. Cogan makes his way out of the dry, roadside jungle into a clearing and onto charred ground. A week ago a wildfire swept through this area, burning about four acres of grass and trees. Cogan's well-worn work boots kick up a black dust that sticks to his pant legs.
"One thing about fire investigation, is it's usually a pretty dirty job," Cogan said.
It's dirty work because Cogan, and the state's other wildfire investigators, spend their time walking through charred forests and grasslands. About 30 investigators around the state try to figure out how these fires start. Statistics show almost all Minnesota wildfires are started by people. And whether it's an accident or a crime, Cogan and his colleagues need to find out who's responsible.
To untrained eyes, this burned landscape may as well be an empty blackboard. But to Cogan the clues, or fire indicators, are obvious even among clumps of charred grass and burned trees. Fire stained rocks and a burned aluminum can in the field also show Cogan which direction the fire traveled. By following these clues, Cogan can figure out where the fire started. He narrows down the ignition point to a few square feet of scorched earth.
This was an easy investigation, the fire was started by a power line hit by a falling tree. But most investigations aren't that simple. Cogan often ends up on his hands and knees with a magnifying glass, spending days searching for clues that, surprisingly, can survive a fire, like a match head, or a discarded cigarette.
One thing about fire investigation, is it's usually a pretty dirty job.Curt Cogan
"It's usually the ones that nobody else can figure out, that's when we get the calls. That's why it takes so long to figure out what happens, because there's nothing real obvious there," Cogan said.
Another member of Minnesota's Wildfire Ivestigation Team is Lt. Rod Smith.
"You're not only putting together physical evidence of what happened, but you're also talking with people to put big pieces of this puzzle together to find out why this fire started," Smith said.
Smith is a Minnesota DNR enforcement officer. Based in Mankato, he helps Curt Cogan with fire investigations across the state. While Cogan and his crew concentrate on how a fire started, Smith and his DNR enforcement officers work to find out who started the fire. Of the 1,500 wildfires every year in Minnesota, the DNR says 95 percent are started by people, and about a third of those are considered arson.
"Some folks are firebugs, they just love to watch the fires burn. In the fall we've had folks burn swamps and cattail areas right before deer season so that the deer don't go in there and hide," Smith said.
The Wildfire Investigation Team can usually figure out how a fire started, but arson convictions only occur about 25 percent of the time. Wildfire arson is a felony that can result in up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Investigators do much better at solving the mystery of accidental wildfires. Most come from a rural right of spring, burning brush and leaf piles. When those get out of control, it's not arson. But if the Wildfire Investigation Team tracks one to your backyard, the result can be expensive. The DNR not only charges criminal fines, but can bill for the cost of the firefighting effort, which can be tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars.