While being practiced and refined in countries such as the United States and Australia, wildfire investigation is a relatively new science in South Africa.
Many people, including seasoned and high-ranking fire fighters, cannot accept that trained and experienced investigators are able to find the origin and cause of destructive wildfires that sometimes burn for days and destroy thousands of hectares of veld. Because of this mindset, very few investigations are requested, resulting in the failure to determine the true cause of the fire, and with it the collection of evidence that could lead to the apprehension of the perpetrator.
This frustration is further shared by local police departments (SAPS) who are expected to investigate registered cases of suspected arson or fire setting when the basic information was never collected by the responsible fire department. The SAPS have by their own admission stated they are not trained or experienced to undertake such investigations, and that it is the responsibility of the fire departments to determine if a malicious act was indeed the cause of the fire in question. Because the fire departments are not requesting the “Origin & Cause” investigation, the registered cases end up as dead ends.
There are ongoing attempts to change the perception of local fire departments and landowners that wildfire investigations in most cases can, and do, find the cause of the fire.
The benefits of this are numerous, including:
a) The actual cause (natural vs. malicious vs. accidental) can be identified, dispelling rumours of arsonists being active in the community.
b) Malicious act cases can be linked to provide additional information for the SAPS to follow up on.
c) Selected information can be used when interrogating suspects.
d) Repeat incidents (especially accidental ones) can be identified and prevented.
e) Incidents where it has been found that children were responsible can result in awareness and education programmes being introduced.