Is the Fire Suspicious?

By Allan Manning

One of the first tasks that must be tackled when a fire claim is reported, is to establish what caused the fire. The three main reasons for this are:
  • Policy Liability: Policy liability will not be granted until this important question has been answered satisfactorily. If the fire has been deliberately lit by the Insured or on the Insured's instructions, then the claim will be denied.
  • Recovery: An investigation into cause can provide enough evidence to allow a recovery in full or in part against a negligent third party.
  • Risk Management: By establishing the cause of the fire, measures can be put in place to prevent a recurrence.

 

Things are not always what they appear. In a recent fire, which occurred in the early hours of the morning in a restaurant, the cause of the fire was not readily apparent. A number of 'red flags' appeared, suggesting possible arson for fraud. The major flags were:

  • The entire building was destroyed, including the floor. This often indicates that an accelerant has been involved.
  • Only 5 months before the fire, the Insured had taken out business interruption insurance for the first time in 15 years of trading.
  • Another of the Insured's businesses was recently sold.

 

 
Photograph 1: A restaurant building and its entire contents, completely destroyed by fire.
 
Photograph 2: A completely burnt out floor can suggest an accelerant, such as petrol, has been used to assist the fire. Note the small distance between the earth and the underside of the floor. This played a role in the actual cause.
    
  
On the other hand, the Insured appeared genuine, has an excellent reputation in the community, and the business was financially successful.
 
An extremely detailed examination of the scene by experienced investigators from Combined Forensic Investigations ("CFI") uncovered the true cause.

A very large stockpot containing beef bones and over 30 litres of water, was left to simmer on a gas range overnight. This is done in restaurants all over the world. Most likely due to a bump during cleaning the day before, a small tap at the base of the stockpot developed a leak after the pot had heated up. The tap did not leak while the pot was cool, and was therefore not noticed by the chef who started the process just before locking up.

During the night, the water leaked out, and the heat of the stove caused the bones in the pot to ignite. The aluminium pot melted, and the molten aluminium ran down the side of the stove onto the vinyl floor covering. Aluminium melts at 660°C, while the timber floor burns at only 350°C. The molten aluminium burnt a hole right through the floor, and accumul ated on the earth beneath.

As the timber floor was only a few inches above ground level, the large pool of molten aluminium caused the underside of the floor to ignite. The fire spread from here, engulfing the entire structure before it was discovered.