Forensic Fire Investigation

Forensic Fire Investigation

Two cars — a sedan and an SUV — are lit on fire on Utah Valley University’s Provo Campus. Flames crackle, pop, and quickly spread through the carpet, into the upholstery, and race toward the roof. In just minutes, the vehicles are engulfed in flames. Windows shatter, and black smoke billows into the afternoon sky.  Firefighters training with UVU’s Fire Recruit Candidate Academy attentively stand guard while watching the clock, and the flames they set. Ten minutes pass and they completely douse the vehicles. All that remains are black shells, water — and evidence.


The following day, a team of students enrolled in UVU’s advanced crime scene techniques course descend on the charred metal. For Amie Houghton, assistant professor of forensic science, this is a teaching moment.


“Fire scenes are very overwhelming because you look at it and feel like everything is burned up, and you think, ‘How am I going to find evidence in it?’ As they approach this type of a scene, it will give them that experience, so when they get to a fire scene it won’t be the first time they have seen that.”


UVU’s forensic academic program provides a multidisciplinary education where students are given engaged-learning experiences that provide skills and training needed for successful careers within forensic science. This crime scene is considered complex.

“Fire is extremely destructive, and many criminals use fire to cover their tracks.” Houghton said. “We can actually find a lot of evidence — figuring out how did the fire start, how did the fire spread, and ultimately coming up with the origin and cause of that fire.” 


There are few scenarios Professor Houghton hasn’t seen before. Prior to her appointment to UVU, she was a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigations Service (NCIS) for 11 years. Her work with university students has helped elevate the forensic science degree program at UVU. In 2018, it was voted among the best by College Choice.


“You really need hands-on skills to learn to do these things, especially since in court you need to be considered an expert, so you really need experience to show that you know what you’re talking about. All these exercises give us a lot of experience with real-life scenarios,” said Troy Burnham, a senior in the forensic science major.


Students collect and process evidence from the burned vehicles while looking for the ignition source of the fire, and observing the fire patterns and damage that provide clues about how it originated and spread. 


This outdoor classroom is just one of many engaged-learning experiences. The program also provides access to state-of-the-art laboratory equipment, a practical crime scene facility, and courses you would expect in a STEM curriculum.


UVU offers the only bachelor of science degree in forensic science in Utah.