The IAAI and CFITrainer.Net present these podcasts with a focus on issues relating to fire investigation. With expertise from around the world, the International Association of Arson Investigators produces these podcasts to bring more information and electronic media to fire investigators looking for training, education and general information about fire investigation. Topics include recent technologies, issues in the news, training opportunities, changes in laws and standards and any other topic that might be of interest to a fire investigator or industry professional affected by fire. Information is presented using a combination of original stories and interviews with scientists, leaders in fire investigation from the fire service and the law enforcement community.
Welcome to this edition of the IAAI’s CFITrainer.Net podcast. Our podcast on what the legalization of recreational marijuana means for fire cause investigation was one of the most popular podcasts ever on CFITrainer.Net. Today, we’ve got a follow up to that podcast with one of our listeners who is an investigator doing training on this very topic.
Vic Massenkoff is an investigator with the Fire Investigation Unit of the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, which is just east of San Francisco, California. He’s worked an increasing number of fires at residential homes given over to marijuana growing operations, and he’s here to give you the benefit of his experience. Thanks for being with us, Vic.
VIC MASSENKOFF: You bet, Rod. Thanks for having me join you today.
ROD AMMON: So one of the concerns, and I guess the main concern that you brought up to us after the initial podcast was safety when working these fires at marijuana grow houses and other production facilities. Can you talk about that and start out by just giving us an idea of the general safety risks and how these small-scale grow houses work?
VIC MASSENKOFF: Sure. These are new drug trends, particularly the way marijuana is now being grown and produced, and it’s being done in a way that we’re just not familiar with, and I think most of us in the business of fire investigation are probably familiar with the outdoor marijuana grow operations that occur in a lot of our national forests and in large outdoor areas, and then we would probably come across some indoor grow operations that were occurring in commercial buildings or very small-scale operations occurring in someone’s garage or closet, but that’s changed drastically today. And now, a large part of the marijuana production is occurring in indoor grow operations that are - where your residential homes are being used. Part of that is - that reason is the indoor grow operations are pretty much being taken over by Asian organized crime on the West Coast, and they are primarily either renting or buying residences in very innocuous subdivisions, late model homes, and in places there you wouldn’t even suspect that someone would be converting an entire home into a marijuana growing operation. In a lot of cases, even the neighbors that live right next door are unaware of what was going on in the house next to them, and a lot of these grow operations are causing fires for a number of reasons, so – and that’s where the fire service gets involved and that’s how we became aware of the many hazards, very significant hazards to first responders as a result of these operations.
And there’s another, besides the indoor marijuana growing operations, now, and it’s taken off like an epidemic across the nation, and of course, started here on the West Coast, and that is the production of butane hash oil, and there used to be - the waste product of these numerous indoor residential grow operations used to be the trim or the leaves of the marijuana plant because nowadays, it’s all about the bud. So the bud is the only part of the plant that’s kept. Everything else is considered waste, and even portions of the bud are trimmed during the growing process. And so all that plant material, they used to just throw away. And then they realized that they can take that plant material and process it using very volatile gases as solvents and make a marijuana extract that has become very popular with a huge profit margin. So that, in a way, led to the other drug trend, that street drug trend that’s posing significant safety hazards to our first responders.
ROD AMMON: So now, let’s talk about fires that are associated with these grow houses and the operations and how they occur. What do you commonly see?
VIC MASSENKOFF: Well, in regard to the indoor grow operations, these are large-scale, commercial, and somewhat sophisticated operations. What you have is some type of an entity, and our case, on the West Coast, they’re predominately Asian organized crime syndicates, but in fact, the Mexican drug cartels are starting to look at that side of the business where they used to predominantly operate large outdoor grow operations. They’re not seeing the huge profit margins that the Asian gangs are seeing. They’re starting to make some inroads into that market, and that, unfortunately, may make response to some of these incidents even more dangerous for first responders. But - so what we see is that they will acquire a home, usually in the range of 2500-3000 square foot, and then convert the entire house to a grow operation.
At some point, they’ll have a straw buyer. They’ll have someone that will make the purchase of the home with funds provided from the syndicate and become the owner on title, and they’re usually then just completely divorced from the operation. All they are, are the straw buyer, and then an electrician will be brought in to basically rewire the home, and that’s where one of the greatest hazards to first responders is created, and that’s the hazard of electrocution, and so the entire house will be rewired to power the grow operation. A number of other modifications that pose hazards are made such as cutting large holes through floor/ceiling assemblies to run ventilation ducts, hanging very heavy ventilation and filtering equipment from ceilings using minimal support. Quite often, we see 150 to 200-pound charcoal canister filter systems with large ventilation fans connected to them suspended from ceilings using just your standard tie-down strap, a nylon tie-down strap, and obviously, you expose that to a little bit of heat and it’s not going to maintain its integrity, and if someone had - someone - a 200-pound filter or ventilator like that fall on them, it would cause serious injury, so that poses another threat.
And then most of the windows are boarded up basically from the inside, in many cases, now to provide security to the grow operation from other crooks who may try to basically pull off a dope rip. They’re now putting metal security bars on the insides of the window, so from the street, all you see are the blinds are drawn and you can’t see in the windows, and you have no idea that the windows are actually boarded from the inside and then can in many cases have metal security bars installed on the inside. So that obviously poses a great risk to our first responders as our firefighters are going into these conditions. It’s burning. Visibility is extremely low.
They’re crawling on hands and knees, performing their initial search for rescue, so they run the risk of entangling with all the equipment and the wiring, the risk of falling through these holes in places where they’re not expected, and then should there - an emergency occur inside, quite often the best emergency route for our firefighters is out the nearest window, and of course, if they’re barred with security bars from the inside, that’s an extreme hazard, definitely a hazard to our first responders, but one thing as fire investigators, both on the public and private side, we assume that - well, we usually get there hours, days, maybe even months sometimes to the scene to investigate the fire, and we assume that the first responders, whether they were law enforcement, EMS, or fire, identified all the hazards and mitigated them.
And in the case of these residential marijuana grows and of the butane hash oil labs that are often co-located at the grows, that is quite often not the case. We are still providing training to first responders throughout our state in California, and law enforcement, fire, and EMS are still somewhat unaware of this trend and exactly what the signs and symptoms are to identify that you have either a grow operation where the power has been bypassed or butane hash oil labs. So that’s one of the greatest dangers is not realizing what the potential hazard is, what type of operation you have, and it’s understandable. Most - this is a respectable profession, and most people in the fire investigation business really don’t keep up on the current street drug trends, but the newer trends, and a lot of it’s because of the Internet.
There are so many new trends developing, and they spread so quickly that by the time we figure out one, there’s already a new one on the horizon, and the last illegal drug trend that posed a serious threat to first responders and investigators was the old traditional methamphetamine lab, which has, for different reasons, become a thing of the past, but everyone pretty much was aware if the fire or the incident involved a methamphetamine lab, it was somewhat obvious, and first responders would always have mitigated that issue before an investigator had to get involved in the scene, but that’s not the case in these situations.
One of the greatest hazards, again, was - is electrocution in regards to these indoor marijuana grows, and that’s because in most cases, the utility services, the electrical utilities, have been bypassed, and they’ll be bypassed between the incoming service and the meter, the utility meter, and a lot of these residential grows are occurring in late model era homes where the utility service is - comes in underground, and it typically comes in to the garage from underground and inside the - one of the garage walls to the utility service meter and then to the distribution panel. Well, in most of these grows, they will bypass - connect a bypass to power their grow in that area in the wall of the garage between where the utility service comes in and the meter, and that, in fact, is quite often where a failure occurs and the cause of the fire can be found, but they will almost always re-sheetrock or recover the wall where they make the bypass, and if the first responders aren’t looking for that, they’re assuming that once they’ve turned off the main breaker at the panel that the home is de-energized, and then that’s not the case.
And I’ve witnessed several cases where our first responders, our firefighters, have suffered luckily minor electrical shocks because of this fact, and so our district now has a policy of not allowing a offensive fire attack, no entry into a burning structure if there’s any indication that there is a grow operation until the utility company, in our case, PG&E, arrives at the scene and disconnects the power either at the pole, if it’s above-ground service, or in the street, if it’s an underground service, and that’s extremely important if anyone arrives to a fire scene where there’s any indication that there was a grow operation, the assumption should be made that there was a power bypass. And the only way to make that building safe power wise is to disconnect the utility service, and even then we can’t make the assumption there wasn’t an alternate source of power, so one of the primary ways to deal with that hazard is to make sure, before any activities occur in that building, is that there - tests are made to make - ensure that the building is de-energized, and that’s extremely important for investigators.
Particularly on the private side, they may arrive to a fire scene, like I said, days, weeks, maybe months down the road, and first responders may have missed completely that there was a utility power bypass, and even with the outside, the breaker turned off, all the circuit breakers on the distribution panel off, the electrical system in that building may still be energized, so it’s extremely important to first check for a bypass, and if there’s any indication of a bypass or a grow operation, have the utilities disconnected at the street, but also ultimately to always test the circuits before coming in contact with them or working near them
There are two other major hazards in the grow operations. We’ve had firefighters and law enforcement first responders killed by electrocution both in the United States and Canada at these grows, so that’s - I think that’s the number one hazard. But there are two other very significant hazards, and one is the hazard of mold. There are a number of mold spores that are commonly found in these indoor grows. In fact, they affect the quality of the grow, so in some cases, the grower may try to mitigate those molds, but there’s always the potential that they are present, and I had no idea until I did some research and attended training myself that some of these molds are highly carcinogenic. Some of them are considered human pathogens and can cause permanent, very serious respiratory tract damage if they are inhaled, and they can be present at these grows, so res - wearing - using respiratory protection and ventilating the structure very well before anyone enters to do any work is extremely important.
One of the other hazards are chemical hazards. There are a number of fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides that are used in the grow operation, and again, you’re working indoors, so the fumes and these products are all confined in an indoor space, and again, can be very hazardous, and again, in this case, full personal protective equipment is a must and respiratory protection and ventilation, very important to ventilate the structure prior to do any work in it. And one of the key ways to mitigate the butane hash oil hazard, again, is full protective - personal protective equipment, but elimination of ignition sources; so if there’s a scene that has any of the signs and symptoms of a butane hash oil operation, it’s extremely important to get the utilities turned off, and again, the gas turned off and the electrical utilities turned off in the street.
It’s not enough to assume that turning the main breaker off, and thereby, we’re eliminating most of the potential ignition sources, and then the next step is to ventilate the structure. We’ve got to get those butane - potential butane vapors dissipated before anybody enters the structure, and then again, to be extremely careful of introducing any ignition sources. We teach law enforcement that obviously firearms, tasers, radios. Most law enforcement radios are not intrinsically safe. Luckily, more and more fire service portable radios are intrinsically safe these days, but all those can introduce an ignition source because something as simple as a static discharge can ignite butane vapors.
ROD AMMON: I’ve got to tell you, Vic, when you started describing this and started going through the details of it, even though I had some familiarity with the topic, I started thinking, man, this is like a house of horrors combined with a booby trap for firefighters, and then it just continues on through into the investigation. I’m also wondering, you talked about a straw buyer, and I get that. I mean, I can imagine that person coming in, making the buy, everything seems normal. Have these places been identified? I mean, I can imagine it would be difficult to have, I don’t know - is it a straw live-in person, somebody who is making it look like the house is occupied?
VIC MASSENKOFF: No, and that’s - what sometimes surprises me is how oblivious neighbors can be to what’s going on right next door. What happens is no one actually lives there, but there will be a caretaker - caretaker, in essence, assigned to maintain the grow operation, and they’ll typically show up just several times a week. They’ll raise the garage door, typically drive right in, close the garage door, and then - and tend to the grow, and they may stay overnight, but they’re not living there, and they’re usually responsible for tending several grow operations, so they move from location to location. And as organized crime would have it, they’re very good at maintaining separation. So the straw buyer typically doesn’t know anyone else in the operation. The electrician who is sent to wire these places to put in the hot tap to bypass the utilities, to distribute the wiring, which there’s very - the amount of wiring in these grow operations is amazing. Typically, that average-sized residential grow can have 80 to 100 1000-watt sodium high-pressure growing lights installed in the house, and each individual light has its own transformer and when we’ve - on some of these cases where we’ve added up the potential draw, it’s between 4 to 600 amps when everything is turned on, and that’s an amazing amount of current to draw through a residential service that’s originally designed usually for a maximum of 200 amps.
ROD AMMON: Yeah, that’s what I was just thinking is that’s the equivalent of four houses, and it brings up another point to me is that I’m guessing they’re putting in - you call it a bypass. I’m thinking about a large junction, and is that - is there any way that that’s tipping off the electrical companies or-?
VIC MASSENKOFF: One of these residential grow operations in that size of house, typically they’ll put in a three-stage grow so that they’ll be able to harvest three times a year. It will typically bring in a million to a million and a half dollars per year per house, so the cost of the utilities I don’t think is a concern of them. The reason they bypass the utilities is to stay off the radar.
ROD AMMON: Well, that’s what I meant. I was wondering how they’re staying off the radar. I guess they’re keeping enough power showing up on the meter.
VIC MASSENKOFF: Exactly. In the past, they would completely bypass the utility service, and so that became a red flag, and so now a - what appears to be a normal amount of residential usage is allowed to go through the meter, and then the majority of the electricity is bypassed to supply the grow.
ROD AMMON: They got smarter. I get it. Okay, so you’ve talked about quite a few things related. First of all, thanks again for bringing up the fact that it’s not just plant trimmings anymore.
VIC MASSENKOFF: It comes with the evolution of marijuana. I - you know, back in our day, when you bought your marijuana, you bought a lid or an ounce for, I don’t know, $20, $30, and that was primary leaf material, and then there was the old - the classic seeds and stems that were in there, and the THC content - THC is that active part of the marijuana plant that creates the high or the alleged medicinal benefit and those things - that THC content was, like, 2 to 3%, and then over the years, it evolved through hybrids and different techniques. It became all about the bud of the plant, and then - and the THC content in bud averages about 25%. And then came along the process of extracting the THC from the plant material using a solvent, and that’s commonly referred to as butane hash oil or butane honey oil. The THC content in that extract can reach 90%, and that is potent, and that is something people just aren’t used to, and some of the chronic marijuana consumers will argue that we’re exaggerating the effects of this form of extract, marijuana extract, but these are folks that are smoking four or five times a day, and so they’ve developed somewhat of a tolerance, but for your average consumer or person who’s not used to ingesting marijuana, you start getting over 30% THC content and you start having hallucinogenic effects. And hospitals now are starting to see - particularly our burn units, and that’s a whole ‘nother impact that this drug trend has had.
ROD AMMON: That’s what I wanted to get to, and before we do that, I want to make sure I’m not - we’re not missing any of these other points that we discussed. We talked about electrical jury rigging or jerry rigging, overloaded grow lights, electrocution just from the unexpected wiring systems, exposed wiring. You had mentioned, and I’m not sure when we talked about it before, but just slips and falls from equipment.
VIC MASSENKOFF: Absolutely, particularly for our first responders, but again, as investigators coming in after the fact, we can’t assume that hidden under that pile of debris on the second floor or working on the first floor with a second floor above us that there aren’t large openings maybe hidden by fire debris or other items where we might walk or be working below where there might be large openings in these areas that we wouldn’t expect. So in the middle of a floor, there might be a layer of fire debris, and we’re going to walk across it on the second story. There could very well be a 2 to 3-foot hole in that middle of that area where a ventilation duct used to go as part of the grow, so we have to learn to expect these things, and yes, the amount of wiring and ventilation and lighting equipment and irrigation equipment, the danger of entanglement and slips, falls, and equipment - grow equipment dropping on a investigator or first responder, those are all hazards that are imminent.
ROD AMMON: I’m also thinking about other risks and other things that are evolving because of butane, and when we spoke about that, I thought there were some interesting things about that, not only what you’re doing to create more safety, but at the same time, efforts that are being taken to reduce the number of these kind of places that are happening, the number of, shall we say, plants or production facilities. Can you talk a little bit about that?
VIC MASSENKOFF: The use of butane in the butane honey oil process is one of my greatest concerns, and an example of how dangerous this process is, is the fact that our burn centers and now across the nation - first the West Coast was impacted, and burn units are a very limited, critical resource. One of the largest burn units in Northern California is a 12-bed unit, and they are now reporting, for the last two years, there are times when 75% of those beds are being used by butane hash oil lab burn victims, and the burns that these people suffer are usually - cover a very high percentage of body surface area and are much deeper burns than your typical accidental burns. Burn treatment community is now struggling with this. In fact, the American Burn Association has decided that next year’s burn prevention week theme will be addressing butane hash oil lab burns, and at their last national convention in Chicago, the East Coast burn units were starting to say, look, we’re starting to see these types of burns, and do you guys know anything about them? And then it became apparent that it has spread across the nation and points in between, so very hazardous. And again, it’s one of those drug trends that we, as first responders, particularly in the fire investigation side, both public and private, we don’t expect that we need to keep up on current street drug trends, but that’s one of the things I think is very important.
There are certain ones, particularly butane hash oil production, that pose a significant threat to investigators and first responders and are causing many, many fires and explosions and deaths and serious burn injuries. So fire investigators will be involved in these types of cases, and in many instances, these are criminal offenses. These are criminal fires. In some cases, the recklessness rises to the level where case laws shows that we should actually be charging arson versus a negligent or reckless causing of a fire statute. At the very least, we should be looking at these cases and investigating them as a criminal act, at the very least, again, as a reckless or a negligently-caused fire, and in many cases, that level of negligence or recklessness rises to the level of arson, which usually has a malicious or intentional act. But it’s what I encourage folks to do is to get out there on their own, attend - there are classes being given to familiarize investigators and first responders with the process. We don’t often, on the fire side, feel we need to become intimately familiar with drug trends, how drugs are manufactured, purchased, used, but in this case, in order to be able to testify in court as an expert to a fire that’s been caused as a result of this process, it’s really important to know where the process originated and how it’s actually made, how the honey oil is made, how it’s used, distributed in order to qualify in court as an expert to these labs as a fire cause.
ROD AMMON: It’s interesting. As we talked about this and as I think back about it, a lot of it relates to the first responder at first blush, walking into this crazy house that’s been completely altered with electrical wires and blocked windows and potential falls and holes in the walls. I mean, it’s crazy, and then I start thinking about, okay, a fire investigator and you said in some of these cases it might be a long period of time before a fire investigator even gets in there. Can you talk about the challenges of investigating that fire? I’m thinking about the challenges of the fire investigation beyond a typical investigation because documentation of all the things that you’re talking about, it seems like there would be a lot of areas of law that would be gray. It seems like finding the cause of the fire is one thing. Dealing with the cause of the fire in this context seems very different. Am I out there with this question?
VIC MASSENKOFF: No, and then that is - that’s a dilemma that fire investigators on the public side deal with all the time, but particularly on the private side because their mission, if you will, is to conduct an investigation as to any civil implications and not to conduct a criminal investigation. Now, establishing negligence or recklessness can be part of the civil considerations, but it’s important for investigators on the private side to - the signs to look for that may - that would indicate that you may have had a butane hash oil operation here. And I just want to point out, they’re not always located at the site of a grow operation. In fact, in most cases, they’re separate, but we are finding more often that they’re co-located because the people conducting the grow now take the waste plant material and convert it to another profitable item.
But in most cases, they’re separate, so you may go into a house where there was a burn injury, might have been minor, might have been significant, might have had no EMS or law enforcement or fire response at all, and - but a flash fire occurred. There was some damage. Maybe the person was a renter. Maybe they’re an owner, but in any case, now as a private fire investigator, you’re - you’ve been sent - assigned to investigate the fire, and typically, and I’ve had it happen to me, the involved party will say, well, I was frying oil on the stove. The oil caught fire, and I got burned. I tried to move it, and you might have a fire that damaged some kitchen cabinets and counters in the immediate area, and what I found in some of these cases was that, and it’s not untypical, that what they were doing is they were making the butane hash oil in the presence of an ignition source, and quite often, they’re doing it on the stove. They’re not rocket scientists, and that’s where the flash fire, where the butane vapors ignite, and if you didn’t know or there weren’t signs that they were making butane hash oil, you may accept the involved person’s account of what happened, so it’s just as important for them to identify those things.
But the problem is - again, the big problem is this use of butane. The honey oil process is very basic. You basically take the waste marijuana plant material. You might have to grind it up a little. You put it into - commonly what’s used are glass tubes or PVC pipe 2 to 3 inches in diameter. There’s a cap on each end. One end is either drilled out, or quite often coffee maker filters are attached with rubber bands or a stainless steel clamp on the end, and on the other end, there’s one hole in the cap, and that’s where you introduce the butane. The source of the butane, in most of these operations, are - they call it refined butane, and you can buy it at your local mom-and-pop, stop-and-rob little grocery store or mini mart online, at Amazon. Sears & Roebuck website sells it. It just drives me crazy that it’s so available and we’re trying to work with the Consumer Product Safety Commission now to regulate this product, but it’s legal to sell. It’s legal to possess in any amount because of the individual packaging.
The size of it and the amount of the product is unregulated, and these are little 300-mL cans, about 13 ounces, of butane. When you look at the MSDS sheets, it’s actually a mixture of N-butane, isopropane, and regular propane. That is what’s used as the solvent. You basically just put the nozzle of that canister - they’re sold as lighter refills, but that’s never what they’re used for, and so you just insert the nozzle of that can into the end of the tube containing the plant material, and you run the gas through the plant material butane, and this is the problem with butane. It’s very volatile. It has a flash point of -76 F, and the refined butane - the odorants like ethyl mercaptan have been removed, so it’s odorless and clear. You don’t detect it when it’s out there in its vapor form. It has an expansion ratio of about 288:1, and more importantly, it’s specific gravity is a little over 2, which makes it obviously heavier than air, so the vapors, and with its volatility, it’s immediately converting to vapor as it comes out of the can, and it’s filling the area where the operation is taking place with clear, odorless, easily ignitable butane vapor that settles and travels and fills the area until it reaches an ignition source. So that’s a huge problem, and that’s got a fairly wide flammable range of 1.8 to 8.4%.
Everybody is doing it. You can go on the Internet and learn how to do it. It’s very simple. So that’s how it’s done in its most basic form, and then the product comes out the other end as a liquid, but again, it’s immediately - the butane’s coming off of the vapor, and so they just let it drop into typically a Pyrex dish, and they allow it to sit and allow the vapors to continue to vapor off, and it leaves you this kind of a gooey, golden-colored product, which is the marijuana extract, which then they just most commonly smoke, but it can be ingested also through edibles, but it’s most commonly smoked, and it’s so potent. They call it dabbing because all it takes is a little dab to smoke, and a long-lasting, often seven to eight-hour long, very intense high, but - so there they are.
They’re just filling the area they’re in with this flammable butane vapor, and that’s the smaller version of the process. So some people decide, well, I want to make more for myself and I want to sell some, and then you have commercial-scale operations. Even the commercial-scale operations tend to use the individual 300-mL canisters. So you can have a scene that has thousands of these canisters where they’re processing the marijuana, so it’s extremely dangerous. And then there are also closed-loop systems where bulk butane is loaded into large, stainless steel containers where it’s a closed-loop system where the butane vapors are recovered and then reintroduced into the plant material to extract the THC, and in these systems, one closed-loop system can use 10 to 15 pounds of butane. They’re all subject to leak.
Again, these aren’t scientific processes. These aren’t rocket scientists operating the system, so they tout closed-loop systems as being safe, but there is no safe way to produce butane honey oil, and so the problem is that these vapors can linger. They can settle in pockets, in - even in outdoor areas actually, much less inside a structure. They can be present when first responders arrive, and imagine that if there is an active butane honey oil lab with these vapors in the structure, and they are right on the edge of the flammable range or they’re nearby or haven’t reached an ignition source and first responders come in that front door, they disturb the air or they introduce an ignition source, there could be a disastrous explosion, and the power of these butane vapor explosions is something most people can’t appreciate, but we’ve responded to several instances where in higher condominiums basically disintegrated from the explosive force of the butane vapors igniting. The butane vapors, with the expansion rate and the additional expansion rate of once they’re ignited, the butane vapor, the ignited butane vapor from one 300-mL canister can fill a 1400-square foot area. So imagine if you’re confining that amount of ignited vapor into a single room, a utility room, a garage. Some people have been doing it in vehicles. The explosive force is immense.
ROD AMMON: I just keep thinking about some of the pictures that I’ve seen, and I was thinking sometimes you must think you’re walking in on a gas explosion or something else. I can’t imagine what it’s like.
VIC MASSENKOFF: Right. Well, we’ve had instances where people ask what kind of bomb was it that caused it, and we explained well, it wasn’t a bomb. It was the ignition of butane vapors, and so again, even once the fire investigator gets there, we can’t assume that that hazard has been mitigated. I’ve come to a number of scenes hours after the fact, sometimes days where butane canisters were left behind, where the butane honey oil product itself was in places where it was undiscovered, and because that product itself will continue to give off butane vapors for a period of time after it’s been made, and again, those vapors can collect, and we’re starting to see more and more explosions and fires in refrigerators because one process of refining the butane honey oil is - it’s called winterization - is to put it in the freezer, typically in a mason jar with just a coffee filter wrapped around the mouth of the jar, so it’s open to vapors, and place it in the refrigerator in a - they recommend using either Everclear or high-percentage isopropyl alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol vapors have characteristics very similar to that of butane vapors.
And so what’s happening is these vapors are escaping out of the freezer and reaching an ignition source, and I’ve had a number of investigators call me, wondering what caused this, and it’s some of them that have attended the training, and called and says I had one of these. I knew what it was, and that’s important. This training - we’ve been giving it for at least a year now in California. We still have first responders in classes come up to us and go I had no idea, but they’re saying now that I know this information, I realize I’ve been to these - one of these incidents and didn’t realize what we had.
ROD AMMON: You know, it’s interesting. That brings up two points. What’s been the reaction of the training, and what are the things that you want our listeners to leave with, a couple of the key points that you’d like to drive forward?
VIC MASSENKOFF: Well, I strongly encourage investigators to go out and find their training locally or on the Internet that goes more in depth into these processes and their hazards and how they - the implications for fire investigations. Today’s podcast I hope gives some level of awareness to the problem. There’s a lot more information out there, and I would hope that it’s a reminder that there are certain things that we would never expect that we would have to stay up on, for instance, drug trends, street drug trends, but in the fire investigation field, if these are potential causes of fires, it’s something we do have to become intimately familiar with. And again, and not to rely on the fact that some other first responder, whether law enforcement, fire, or EMS was there before us because I had a recent incident. A student in one of my classes responded, was called out as the duty fire investigator for an explosion and fire in a residence. The law enforcement jurisdiction had already arrived.
It was a fully involved residence. They assumed it’s a fire, and once traffic control and everything was taken care of, they left the scene, and once our - the duty fire investigator got there, he saw the signs right away of a commercial-scale butane hash oil operation and made the call and said, you know, law enforcement, you need to come back here. And it turned out to be a major criminal case in which a toddler was almost killed due to the fire and explosion, and it did originate in the refrigerator, part of that winterization process. So I think that’s a good example of why we can’t assume that, well, if it was a drug lab, the cops would have figured it out when they got here before us. Not the case with these new and emerging trends, so we just have to take the time and educate ourselves and the pass that information on to our peers and our coworkers so that we’re all aware of the potential hazards.
ROD AMMON: I’m really grateful for your time, and I know the folks at the IAAI and all the people who listen really appreciate you sharing what seems to be some pretty critical safety and investigative procedure information, and I also want to say that I’m grateful that you reached out and contacted us to be part of this podcast and get the word out, so thank you very much, Vic.
VIC MASSENKOFF: It’s absolutely my pleasure.
ROD AMMON: Now, for the IAAI news. The IAAI folks are on the road right now. They’re going to several different shows, and they’re talking about membership. If you get a chance when you’re at any of the shows as they wrap up for the fall, please stop by the IAAI booth; pick up a membership application. There’s several offers that are going to be going on that are a really good deal, so check in with them and find out about joining the IAAI International.
It is with great sorrow that the IAAI and many throughout the fire investigation and fire service world mourn the loss of a brother from South Africa. We lost Kim Yates a couple weeks ago, and he was a great spirit and a well-known and loved investigator. We are greatly saddened by the loss of Kim Yates, and there are a couple of sweet tributes to him at firearson.com written by his close friend and business partner, Andre De Beer, and another dear friend, Bob Toth. Please join all of us in the fire community as we remember Kim.
For CFITrainer.Net and the IAAI, I’m Rod Ammon.
Anthony, Laura. "New Policy for Fighting Fires at Drug Houses in Contra Costa County." ABC7 San Francisco. N.p., 19 Feb. 2014. Web. 12 June 2015.
DeBolt, David. "Bay Area Firefighters Wary of Electrocution Danger with Rise in Pot Grow House Fires." ContraCostaTimes.com. Contra Costa Times, 20 Feb. 2014. Web. 12 June 2015.
Doan, Claire. "Doctors: Hash oil 'epidemic' sends more burn victims to hospitals" KCRA. N.p., 16 July 2015. 2014. Web. 12 June 2015.
Doan, Claire. "Firefighters Play Defense When Battling Fires at Pot Grow Houses." KCRA. N.p., 19 Feb. 2014. Web. 12 June 2015.
Sangree, Hudson. "Hash-oil Burns Are Exploding Danger." Sacbee.com. The Sacramento Bee, 6 June 2015. Web. 12 June 2015.
Shafer, Margie. "Popularity of Butane Hash Oil Alarms East Bay Fire Investigator." CBS San Francisco. N.p., 20 Feb. 2014. Web. 12 June 2015.
This program provides a primer on accreditation, certification, and certificates for fire investigation training.
A fire occurred on the night of Feb. 20, 2003, in The Station nightclub at 211 Cowesett Avenue, West Warwick, Rhode Island.
Arc Mapping, or Arc Fault Circuit Analysis, uses the electrical system to help reconstruct a scene, providing investigators with a means of determining the area of a fire’s origin.
This module introduces basic electrical concepts, including: terminology, atomic theory and electricity, Ohm’s Law, Joule’s Law, AC and DC power.
A fire occurred on the evening of June 18, 2007, in the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, SC that resulted in the deaths of nine fire fighters.
This module looks at the many ways fire investigators enter and grow in the profession through academia, the fire service, law enforcement, insurance, and engineering.
This module will present a description of the IAAI organization.
This module takes a closer look at four of the most commonly-reported accidental fire causes according to "NFPA Fact Sheet.
This program brings three highly experienced fire investigators and an attorney with experience as a prosecutor and civil litigator together for a round table discussion.
The program discusses the basics of digital photography for fire investigators as well as software and editing procedures for digital images intended as evidence.
This self-paced program is an introduction to discovery in civil proceedings such as fire loss claims and product defect lawsuits.
This self-paced program is an introduction to discovery in criminal proceedings.
This module covers the foundation of DNA evidence: defining, recognizing, collecting, and testing.
This program provides a practical overview of how to perform the baseline documentation tasks that occur at every scene.
This module will discuss the techniques and strategies for conducting a proper science-based fire scene investigation and effectively presenting an investigator’s findings in court as an expert witness.
This module presents critical electrical safety practices that every fire investigator should implement at every scene, every time.
This self-paced program examines the fire investigator's ethical duties beyond the fire scene.
As social media has emerged as a powerful force in interpersonal communications, fire investigators are being confronted with new questions...
Should you work for a private lab as a consultant if you are on an Arson Task Force? How about accepting discounts from the local hardware store as a “thanks” for a job well done on a fire they had last year?
This module takes investigators into the forensic laboratory and shows them what happens to the different types of fire scene evidence that are typically submitted for testing.
This module teaches the foundational knowledge of explosion dynamics, which is a necessary precursor to investigating an explosion scene.
This module addresses the foundations of fire chemistry and places it within the context of fire scene investigations.
The program is designed to introduce a new Palm/Pocket PC application called CFI Calculator to users and provide examples of how it can be used by fire investigators in the field.
This module examines these concepts to help all professionals tasked with determining fire origin and cause better understand fire flow dynamics so they can apply that knowledge to both to fire investigation and to fire attack.
This module provides a road map for fire officers to integrate and navigate their fire investigation duty with all their other responsibilities and describes where to obtain specific training in fire investigation.
The evaluation of hazards and the assessment of the relative risks associated with the investigation of fires and explosions are critical factors in the management of any investigation.
This module will describe the most commonly encountered fire protection systems.
This module presents best practices in preparing for and conducting the informational interview with witnesses in the fire investigation case.
This module provides instruction on the fundamentals of residential building construction with an eye toward how building construction affects fire development.
This module teaches first responders, including fire, police and EMS, how to make critical observations.
This program discusses how to access insurance information, understand insurance documents, ask key questions of witnesses, and apply the information learned.
This module offers a basic introduction about how some selected major appliances operate.
This program introduces the fire investigator to the issues related to the collection, handling and use of evidence related to a fire investigation.
This program takes you inside the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) archives of some of the most interesting and instructive test burns and fire model simulations they have ever conducted.
The program provides foundational background on the scope of the youth-set fire problem, the importance of rigorous fire investigation in addressing this problem, and the role of key agencies in the response to a youth-set fire.
This module provides a thorough understanding of the ways an investigation changes when a fire-related death occurs.
This self-paced program will help you understand what to expect at a fire where an LODD has occurred, what your role is, how to interact with others, and how to handle special circumstances at the scene.
This program will introduce the fire investigator to the basic methodologies use to investigate vehicle fires.
This module presents the role natural gas can play in fire ignition, fuel load, and spread; the elements of investigating a fire in a residence where natural gas is present; and the potential role the gas utility or the municipality can play an investigation.
This self-paced program covers fundamental legal aspects of investigating youth-set fires, including the juvenile justice system, legalities of interviews and interrogations, arson statutes, search and seizure, and confidentiality.
This program discusses the latest developments in expert testimony under the Daubert standard, including the MagneTek case recently decided in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals.
This module focuses on how to manage investigations that have “complicating” factors.
This module uses the Motive, Means, and Opportunity case study to demonstrate how responsibility is determined in an arson case.
This program covers the general anatomy of a motor vehicle and a description of typical components of the engine, electrical, ignition, and fuel systems.
This self-paced program is the second part of a two-part basic introduction to motor vehicle systems. This program describes the function and major components of the transmission, exhaust, brake, and accessory systems.
This module educates the investigator about NFPA 1033’s importance, its requirements, and how those requirements impact the fire investigator’s professional development.
This module reviews the major changes included in the documents including the use of color photos in NFPA 921 and additional material that supports the expanded required knowledge list in NFPA 1033 Section 1.3.7.
The program illustrates for the fire investigator, how non-traditional fire scene evidence can be helpful during an investigation.
This module introduces the postflashover topic, describes ventilation-controlled fire flow, illustrates how the damage left by a postflashover can be significantly different than if that fire was extinguished preflashover.
This module lays the groundwork for understanding marine fires by covering four basic concepts that the investigator must understand before investigating a marine fire.
In this module, you will learn more about how cancer develops, what occupational exposure risks to carcinogens exist at fire scenes, and how to better protect yourself against those exposures.
The use of the process of elimination in the determination of a fire cause is a topic that has generated significant discussion and controversy in the fire investigation profession.
This module teaches the basics of the electrical power generation, distribution, and transmission system.
This module presents the basics of natural gas and its uses and system components in a residence.
This module explains the principles of search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, as contained in the amendment and according to subsequent case law, and applies them to typical fire scene scenarios.
One of the legal proceedings that may require the fire investigator to testify is a deposition. Depositions are often related to civil proceedings, but more and more jurisdictions are using them in criminal cases.
Deposing attorneys employ a variety of tactics to learn about the expert witness giving testimony, to try to unsettle that witness to see how he/she handles such pressure, and to probe for weaknesses to exploit.
This module provides introductory information on the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard – 29 CFR 1910.120.
The program examines the importance of assessing the impact of ventilation on a fire.
This module demonstrates the investigative potential of information stored on electronic devices.
This module explains the relationship between NFPA 1033 and NFPA 921
The basics of the scientific method are deceptively simple: observe, hypothesize, test, and conclude.
This module addresses the foundations of thermometry, including the definition of temperature, the scales used to measure temperature and much more.
This program presents the results of flame experiments conducted with a candle.
This self-paced program explains to non-investigators the role of the fire investigator, what the fire investigator does, how the fire investigator is trained, what qualifications the fire investigator must meet.
This module will untangle the meanings of "undetermined," straighten out how to use the term correctly, talk about how not to use it, and describe how to properly report fires where "undetermined" is the cause or classification.
This module will advise fire investigators on how to approach the fact-finding procedures necessary and validate a hypothesis.
This module provides an overview on how structures can become vacant and eventually abandoned.
This self-paced program provides a basic framework for structuring the management of fire cases and fire investigators.
This module illustrates how wildland fires spread, explains how to interpret burn patterns unique to these types of fires.
This module presents the key elements of the initial origin and cause report and methods of clearly presenting findings in a professional manner.