George Codding has looked at fire from many angles — as firefighter, prosecutor and now as head of a global group of fire investigators.
“There is science involved in the investigation, even if you find someone running from the scene with gas cans wearing black clothing,” he said. “Sometimes things get clearly criminal, but you’ve got to be rigorous in how you approach it.”
There are tens of thousands of suspected arsons in the United States every year. As president of the 9,000-member International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI), Codding (IntlAf, PolSci’84; Law’89) is leading the charge to further professionalize examination of a crime that has been around since shortly after man discovered fire.
A top goal is ensuring that investigations are as scientific as can be.
Like all good scientists, fire investigators form a hypothesis about how a fire started and then test it, Codding said. They follow patterns and examine chemical traces, considering everything from the properties of flammable liquids to how polyester clothes burn.
“Fires leave a lot of patterns and evidence, but these have to be evaluated cautiously,” said Codding, a volunteer investigator with the Louisville, Colo., Fire Department whose day job is senior assistant attorney general for the State of Colorado. “As a fire develops, early patterns are often obscured or overwhelmed by later ones.”
It’s essential, he said, that “the science is good.”
Codding (whose father, George Codding Jr., directed CU Boulder’s International Affairs program from 1965 to 1993) took an early interest in fire, joining Boulder’s Cherryvale (now Rocky Mountain) Volunteer Fire Department just after high school. He kept up with firefighting as an undergraduate and law student at CU, and long afterward.
“I remember doing response calls when I was taking classes at the Fleming Law Building,” he said.
After Codding joined the Boulder district attorney’s office in 1996, then-DA Alex Hunter encouraged his interest in arson investigations. This led to his involvement with IAAI.
The group joins fire departments, police, scientists, engineers, private investigators and insurance companies, all with the common goal of finding answers to a crime typically driven by revenge, mischief or monetary gain. The organization focuses on training and outreach through 79 chapters worldwide.
Codding, who became president this year, has traveled widely giving talks about fire investigation — including one in Brazil for which he learned enough Portuguese to present for nearly an hour. (He also speaks French and Spanish.)
As fire science has improved, it has generated concerns that some arson convictions rest on shaky evidence; the IAAI serves as an expert resource when old cases are revisited.
Among the most notorious was that of Todd Willingham, a Texan convicted of murder in a 1991 fire that killed his three young children. After Willingham was executed, key evidence was called into question.
That case underscored the high stakes of fire investigators’ work, Codding said.
“Fairness and justice require that criminal arson convictions have a strong basis in fact and science,” he said.
Photo courtesy George Codding