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TVF&R investigator examines house fire clues

Tom Mooney gets to the bottom of what causes blazes that destroy homes


Deputy Fire Marshal Tom Mooney has investigated fires across Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue. The Bull Mountain resident said hot, dry weather has lead to several fires across the area, including two just blocks from each other on Bull Mountain.The house in the 14500 block of Southwest 148th Place on Bull Mountain looks like any other on its quiet cul-de-sac — until you look at the backyard.

Blackened with charred wood and burnt grass, it’s impossible to hide the fire damage from last Thursday’s blaze.

It’s the second large house fire on Bull Mountain in the past week, and it’s fire investigator Tom Mooney’s job to figure out why.

Mooney, a deputy fire marshal with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, is part firefighter and part detective.

As a fire investigator, it’s his job to put the charred pieces back together and figure out what happened.

Sometimes, that’s easy, Mooney said. Other times, it’s more difficult.

The house on 148th Place is a bit of both, Mooney said.

“You can tell that the fire started on the side of the house and worked its way around,” Mooney said, examining the grass. “There were a lot of things working against them that day. There were 30 mile-per-hour winds just ripping through here. It funneled it through here like a valley. It was just cranking.”

The blaze grew, spreading across the grass and reaching a large deck surrounded by tall hedges. It consumed the deck and hedges and climbed the walls of the home, spreading into the attic.

“Arborvitae are like gasoline on sticks,” Mooney said, looking at the blackened remains of the hedges.

The fire licked the sides of several more hedge plants lining neighboring yards.

“Had we not gotten here, that could have spread to a neighboring house,” he pointed out.

The house was significantly damaged. It took firefighters about 30 minutes to extinguish the flames. But Mooney’s day was just beginning.

A busy year

With hot, dry summer weather lasting well into September, fires have the ideal conditions to spread.

“It feels like a very busy year,” Mooney said.

Mooney responded to four fires Sept. 11 alone.

The fire on 148th Place erupted less than a week after two homes were damaged in a fire in the 14600 block of Jordy Court, near Beef Bend Road.

That blaze displaced 10 people living in the two houses.

“That’s the way it is, sometimes,” Mooney said. “You’ll have weeks of nothing and then weeks where you’re calling in extra guys because you can’t handle all the cases.”

Mooney arrives at fire scenes while firefighters are still hard at work. His goal is to get a closer look at the conditions before it’s extinguished.

“I want to see where it is burning,” he said. “And sometimes we need to limit firefighters from tearing down walls to get to a hot spot. We want to get our photographs first to see where the fire went, how it grew, what is in the room that’s causing this? Is it the furnishings?”

Mooney, who lives on Bull Mountain, has been investigating fires across Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood for the past five years. He started his career as a volunteer firefighter in Maryland and studied fire science in Oklahoma.

“You really delve into the science side of fires. Fire dynamics and behavior,” he said.

Unraveling clues

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: GEOFF PURSINGER - TVF&R fire investigator Tom Mooney has been investigating fires with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue for five years. The Bull Mountain resident said hot, dry weather has lead to several fires across the area.At times, fires can seem to have a will of their own. Mooney works the scene like a police officer, questioning witnesses and processing what evidence he finds.

“Standing here, I can see which way the deck collapsed and how the fire moved,” he said, examining the backyard. “The wind pushed it all the way around this way.”

Eye witnesses are also key to determining a cause of the blaze, Mooney said.

A neighbor on 148th Place called 911 to report what he saw as a small barkdust fire, Mooney said.

“The neighbor went to get a hose, when he got back, the fire had been pushed back because of the wind,” Mooney said. “Not having him as a witness, I’d probably have scratched my head a bit. It would have taken me a bit longer to figure out.”

Unfortunately, there is only so much the physical evidence can tell you, Mooney said.

The cause of the blaze is officially listed as “undetermined,” Mooney said.

“There is no golden egg to say this is what it was, exactly,” Mooney said.

“Doing a fire investigation is like science class,” he added. “You create a hypothesis and gather all your data, and then you have to test it. Is this even feasible? There’s a point where you have to say, ‘There’s no way this happened like this.’ Then you go, ‘OK, let’s try it this way’, and start all over. If none of them work out, there’s little you can do. It’s undetermined.”

That’s a difficult part of the job, Mooney said.

“I hate telling a homeowner, ‘I have no idea what caused it, dude,’” Mooney said. “I can tell you the exact spot where it started, but unfortunately, I can’t tell you what happened. I have theories, but I can’t be sure.”

It’s a tough job, Mooney said. You are meeting people on what is likely the worst day of their lives.

“How do you start that conversation?” Mooney said. “’How are you doing today?’ That’s not going to work.”

The damage to the home on 148th Place is too severe to allow the homeowner to continue living in it, Mooney said. But when it’s all said and done, it could have been a lot worse.

“At the end of the day, everybody got out, and nobody got hurt,” he said. “That’s a perfect day. You can fix all the rest of this.”

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