Sand Fire cause undetermined after one year


Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles looking at the Sand Fire, one year after it ravaged certain portions of the Santa Clarita Valley.

Despite months of detective work and painstaking efforts by one of the county’s leading arson investigators assigned to the case, whatever caused last year’s Sand Fire remains “undetermined.”

Fire Investigator Captain Glen Smith of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who told The Signal in September that most helpful thing for fire-cause investigators was, of course, to find someone who saw the fire begin.

“The biggest thing for us, hopefully, is that we have a witness,” Smith said in September.

Smith told The Signal Thursday, on the eve of the fire’s one-year anniversary: “The cause is undetermined.”

Not having an official cause one year after the fact is not for lack of trying.

The Sand Fire – described as strange and unique by veteran firefighters – was problematic from the outset, according to Smith.

“Intensely fast-moving fires pose their own problems for (fire cause) investigators. But, that’s one of so many things we look at.”

Fire officials called in their best arson investigator to figure out what sparked the fire that claimed one man’s life, burned 19 homes to the ground, evacuated half a dozen neighborhoods and destroyed more than 41,000 acres.

They turned to Ed Nordskog.

Despite widespread speculation that the Sand fire had been deliberately set, Nordskog of the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s Arson Explosives Detail said arson is not what caused it.

And, if anyone could tell the difference between accidental fires and ones that are purposely set, it’s Ed Nordskog.

“This was an accident,” Nordskog told The Signal in September.

“It was probably pieces of tire, but it was definitely car parts,” he said. “Located on the very edge of the fire were hot, burned vehicle parts.”

The best guess by the best arson investigator is that the Sand Fire was caused by “hot, burned car parts.”

Of all the fire investigators both at the LASD and the Los Angeles County Fire Department, fire officials tapped the man who has investigated and “rendered safe” more than 570 hazardous devices — a fancy phrase for bombs.

So why Nordskog?

The short answer is: the Sand fire is complicated. And, as Nordskog explained in a book he wrote about arson and determining the cause of fires: “If it was easy, anybody could do it. It’s not, and they can’t.”

Nordskog faces a series of obstacles as he poked through the charred remains of hillsides and the blackened rubble around Sand Canyon for clues.

Just as factors such as hilly terrain, dry brush, triple digit temperatures and sharp wind-funneling valleys complicated firefighting efforts as the Sand fire gained momentum, similar factors threaten to impede Nordskog’s efforts to determine how it started.

Nordskog, who wrote a book published five years ago called “Torchered Minds: Case Histories of Notorious Serial Arsonists,” calls the work he does “extraordinarily difficult.”

His challenge determining the Sand fire’s cause is, arguably, summed up on the dust jacket of his book: “It is an extraordinarily difficult task that on a daily basis is fraught with pitfalls and rife with myths and misconceptions.”

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