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Wildfire Investigations

It is BIA policy to determine the origin and cause of all wildfires occurring on Indian Lands. Fire investigations are conducted when there is potential for a wildfire to result in tort claims, trespass damage recovery, litigation, or when arson is a possibility.  Fire Investigators will meet the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) qualifications. 

It is Indian Affair’s policy to:

  • Determine the origin and cause of all wildfires occurring on Indian Lands and accurately record them in the official system: The Department of the Interior’s (DOI) Wildland Fire Information System (WFMI)
  • Request that wildfires originating off Indian Lands that result in damages on Indian Lands are properly investigated by the jurisdictional authority
  • Conduct all wildland fire origin and cause investigations objectively and free from any conflict of interest

The reasons for wildland fire origin and cause investigations include:

  • Determining the origin and cause of wildfires
  • Identifying responsible parties
  • Documenting ownership responsibility for the wildfire
  • Documenting causes for statistical reporting and analysis
  • Determining whether there is evidence that a crime has been committed
  • Providing supporting documentation when litigation is necessary (25 CFR §163.1 and § 16638)
  • Improving prevention program planning

Understanding Human vs. Naturally Occurring Wildfires

In Indian Country, arson and debris burning are the leading causes of wildfires in areas where vegetation interfaces with urban structures.  On average, human-caused wildfires account for 80% of all wildfires that occur in Indian Country every year. Due to their proximity to homes and other community infrastructure, they also destroy nearly 190 structures annually.  

Wildfires are categorized into one of nine general cause classes.  Each general cause contains a subset category “specific cause” that further defines the ignition source of the fire. The general and specific causes are listed below:

Naturally Occurring Wildfires

Naturally occurring wildfires are most frequently caused by lightning. There are also volcanic, meteor, and coal seam fires, depending on the circumstance.  

Human Caused Wildfires

Human caused wildfires can be accidental, intentional (arson) or from an act of negligence.  

Fire Cause

The official system of record BIA uses for reporting purposes is the InFORM system. 

General Cause

Specific Cause

Other Known or Unknown

Lightning (natural)

Lightning (but could also include volcanic, meteor)

When a specific cause is unknown or the cause is not in the specific cause list, then other known or unknown is selected.  When "other" is selected, the cause should then be noted in the remarks (i.e. exploding target).

Coal-seams burning of an outcrop or underground coal seam  

Campfire

Cooking, warming, bonfire

 

 

Smoking

Cigarette, cigars, pipes, and matches/lighters used for lighting tobacco

Fire use 

Debris burning, burning ditches, fields or slash piles, etc..

Incendiary

Arson, illegal or unauthorized burning

Equipment

Vehicles, aircraft, exhaust, flat tires, dragging chains, brakes, etc.

Railroads

Exhaust, brakes, railroad work, etc

Juveniles

Fire play - matches, fireworks, lighters, etc

Miscellaneous

Includes burning buildings, fireworks, power lines, shooting (ammo, exploding targets), spontaneous combustion (hay baled while still wet, compost piles, oily rags), blasting, and coal seams

A fire may be classified as “unknown” if fire investigators were unable to determine a cause or if the fire’s origin is destroyed.  It may have been determined to be human-caused, but the general or specific cause may remain unknown or undetermined 

Since 2002, prescribed/controlled burns have not been captured in data collections unless it escapes control and is then reclassified as a wildfire. 

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