Arson: a burning desire

It is the first call of our shift: a blaze at a four-storey block of flats in south London.

Dozens of people have been evacuated, including a disabled woman carried from the now gutted, still smouldering top floor. Forty sweat-streaked firefighters have returned wearily to their engines, the eight-pump blaze finally under control after three hours.

Inside the block the fire investigators, apparently oblivious to the heat and the harsh, heavy smell of smoke, study fire patterns, make a preliminary sift through rubble, take photographs, and ensure that no potential evidence is destroyed.

One points to where it seems the fire began, at the top of a stairwell, the flames rapidly rising into the roof space before spreading sideways, turning ceilings of several flats into grill plates. Beneath them, rooms quickly became as hot as ovens, ready to burst into flame the moment burning rubble fell from above: what firefighters call flashover.

Fire investigation is not a pretty job. There are collapsed structures, water-soaked ashes, smoke and stench. Underfoot, floors are a wet, black, oily mess; above, clouds are clearly visible through gaping holes in the roof. More careful examinations are needed. But not yet.

'They were all lucky to get out'

The scene is still too precarious. We move to the far side of the street. There are four of us: Dave Arnold, a fire-dog handler and investigator and my guide for the next two shifts, and Mick Boyle and Neil Crosfield, the first investigators on the scene.

Boyle, who has been on duty for 16 hours, stares at the police do not cross tape that now guards the building, and makes it clear that already he has no doubt what caused the fire: arson. Someone entered the unlocked main entrance of the block, climbed the concrete stairs and started this blaze. Furthermore, Boyle is convinced that it wasn't the arsonist's first crime of the night.

The call had come as Boyle and Crosfield were investigating a succession of smaller fires nearby, making five in a small area in just over an hour: a disused pub, a flat with a mother and child inside, a heap of rubbish, a garage. 'Arsonists normally start small and build up over a period,' Boyle says. 'This guy doesn't – he's gone bang, bang, bang, all on the same night. He might as well have had a gun.' Crosfield nods in agreement. 'They were all lucky to get out'

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