Slide Fire: 1 Year Later... The Investigation Continues
This week marks one year since the Slide Fire broke out in Oak Creek Canyon. It burned more than 33 square miles and forced the evacuation of nearly 300 residents and visitors. It now stands as the largest wildfire in the history of the Coconino National Forest. Each day this week, KNAU will revisit the Slide Fire: checking in with evacuees, taking a look at how flora and fauna are doing, hearing from local officials about lessons learned in firefighting and community preparedness. KNAU's Aaron Granillo starts our series with an update on the investigation into the human-caused blaze.
The case is open and ongoing, which is why Forest Service Special Agent Lucas Woolf couldn't take me to the fire's "origin site" for our recent interview.
"It is a crime scene so that was the reason why we're not going to reveal where that is," says Woolf.
Instead, we go to the "origin site" of another wildfire: the 2010 Schultz Fire at the base of the San Francisco Peaks. Under a layer of fresh, spring vegetation - and a steady downpour - is the scar of an abandoned campfire that investigators determined to be the spark of the destructive blaze. Woolf says fires and humans leave behind many clues at "origin sites".
"We determine what kind of evidence is it. Is there any kind of forensic review we think we need with this? Do we need to gather fingerprints off of this particular item or DNA?" says Woolf. "A cigarette butt. That's a perfect example, so I would want to collect that and then submit it to a crime lab who can perform those forensics on it and hopefully identify a suspect."
If there is a known suspect in the Slide Fire investigation, or a cigarette was the cause, Woolf can't say because the details of the case remain classified. Any evidence has been examined - and reexamined - at the Arizona Department of Public Safety Crime Lab. David Lane is the regional manager of the agency's Flagstaff division.
"In a wildfire situation there may be cigarette butts, lighters, beer cans, things of that nature that might be found where the fire started that they may be able to tie back to suspects," Lane says. So we'd be able to check for DNA on those types of things."
While fire can, obviously, destroy a lot of vital evidence at a crime scene, fingerprints often survive. Lane says forensic experts are sometimes able to lift prints from charred objects by covering them with strong glue and baking them.
"They heat up the super glue. The super glue then attaches to the oils and things that the latent print consists of, says Lane. "And then they're able to photograph it, then do a comparison to a suspect, for example," says Lane.
Estimates vary widely, from forest district to forest district, as to how many human-caused wildfires result in prosecutions, but they do happen. Three suspects were eventually apprehended and convicted for starting the two largest wildfires in Arizona's recorded history: the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire, and the 2011 Wallow Fire.
Officials investigating the Slide Fire are optimistic they too will find the person responsible for setting ablaze one of the most celebrated canyons in northern Arizona.