Heat From Nuts?
A forensic puzzle
We have received yet another maddening forensic nut puzzle. As usual, we feel compelled to bring it to your attention. (Thanks to investigator L. August for bringing it to our attention.)
Here is the beginning of the report as we received it:
St. Louis Post Dispatch March 6, 2002
By Heather Ratcliffe
Of The Post-Dispatch
Bill Buxton doesn't mean to throw water on an official finding that a bucket of self-igniting pecans burned out a home in Pacific last month.
But as insurance investigator on the case, he thinks the fire started in faulty wiring.
Pacific Fire Marshal Ken Pritchard stands behind his finding that blames spontaneous combustion caused by heat from the nuts' decay - a phenomenon Buxton says can happen but didn't in this case.
Either way, Dan and Cathy Dorenkamp will collect from their insurance for the accidental fire in the $210,000 house they built in 1995, Buxton said. And either way, their dog gets part of the blame for the blaze Feb. 24.
In Pritchard's scenario, the heat built up because the Dorenkamps used one bucket to cover another in the garage that contained the pecans, to keep the hound out of what they planned to use as bird feed.
In Buxton's view, blame falls to wiring leading to a buried cable that acts as an "invisible fence" to keep the dog in the yard by transmitting a shock if its special collar crosses the boundary.
"We know for sure that the fire didn't originate inside the garage where the buckets were found," said Buxton, a former Illinois state fire investigator who now operates Pyr Tech Inc., a private investigation company based in Collinsville. "Burn patterns indicate that the fire started outside the garage."
Buxton agrees with Pritchard that organic material can ignite on its own if it is compressed and has limited access to the air. "The fire department is correct that this could happen," Buxton said. "But in this case there was too much air around those pecans. They were not packed that tightly."
Pritchard, however, said his department ruled out all other causes. He said burn patterns put the origin near the bucket of pecans, where there was no other source for the fire.
"As bizarre as it sounds, that's the only cause we can come up with," Pritchard said....
If you have physico-chemical insights on the question you are urged to act on them. Please keep us informed of any pertinent developments or undulations.
© Copyright 2002 Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)
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