November 2009

Man on Fire

Fighting blazes is one thing, fighting those who start them is another


tom derby, arson investigator, my l.a. Photo by Harry Garvin

It’s just past 9:30 in the morning, and Tom Derby is rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “Rough night,” he says with a smile. “We had one run where a gentleman had gotten burned cleaning a floor with acetone. So I went to bed about 10, 10:30. Then I had to get up again at 2—someone had set a motorcycle on fire in a carport. Got back to bed around 3:30 and got up this morning around 7:30.”

Derby is an investigator with the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Arson/Counter-Terrorism Section. Its headquarters is in Elysian Park, near Dodger Stadium in an art deco building that’s a historical landmark—a former induction and training center for the U.S. Navy going back to WWII.

Driving through the entrance just off Stadium Way, you immediately notice an ornament that comfortably conforms to the surroundings—a large anchor from a ship, an homage to this place in simpler times. But on the other side is something massive and jarringly incongruous—23 tons and 22 feet tall, its foundation buried 30 feet deep.

The copper-colored, W-shape steel column was part of the lobby structure for the south tower of the World Trade Center, an imposing tribute to the 343 firefighters killed in the 9-11 attacks. “It helps us remember what happened back then,” Derby says, “and what continues to happen in our world.”

He is a big guy, well over six feet. Not fat by any means, just thick in the middle. But Derby carries it well, built like an old football lineman or basketball forward. He looks like he used to lift weights or work out, but he says he’s just naturally large. “I’m at about 260—a lot heavier than I want to be.”

After more than 30 years on the job, the 60-year-old is one of the LAFD’s most senior investigators. His main responsibility is handling major fraud cases. Derby paid his dues long ago, covering more routine calls like the ones of last evening. Normally he wouldn’t be dragging himself out of bed in the middle of the night to race to the scene of a fire. “I was filling in for one of the guys,” he says with a grin, and you get the feeling he might have actually enjoyed pulling a 24-hour shift like he did in the old days, when he signed on fresh out of the navy.

Derby was stationed on the USS Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, during the Vietnam War. “In the navy, everyone is a firefighter,” Derby says. “You can’t call a fire truck when you’re out at sea. I found fighting the fires exciting work.”

It was there Derby first learned about the application of the “fire triangle” in his profession. “The fire triangle is heat, oxygen and fuel,” he says. “If you separate any one of those from the triangle, the fire goes out.”

Derby joined the LAFD in 1975 and fought fires for five years, pushing daily toward what he and his brethren call the Beast when everyone else was running away from it. “You’re programmed,” he says. “You’re gonna go in there no matter what. Fire can be boiling out. You know to stay low, advance with the hose and keep fighting. There’s no retreating. You don’t even feel the fear. You just know you have a job and you’re going in there to do it.”

And when the Beast had been vanquished and he was packing his gear, exhausted, scorched and gasping for breath, he’d notice the same ritual at the scene of every fire. “These guys would come out in suits and plain cars,” Derby says, “and you didn’t know if they were police detectives or what. I asked one day and was told, ‘Oh, that’s the Arson Unit.’ ”

The men in the suits and their secretive jobs intrigued Derby. He asked more questions. He took extra classes in the science behind fires and the reasons for them. He applied for a job in the Arson Section—the Counter-Terrorism title was added after 9-11—and by 1980 he was working as an investigator. No suit for Derby, though. He favors work shirts and khakis.

Just as firefighters have a fire triangle, arson investigators have a three-pronged formula for determining the reasons for a fire. “It’s the fuel, the source of ignition and the event that brought those two together,” Derby says. “Once we can find all three, we can make our determination as to how a fire occurred.”

tom derby, lapf, lafd, arson investigator, my la

Derby gives an example. A few days earlier, he’d been called to a grisly scene in a downtown alley. A man lay dead, horribly burned, a gas container nearby. It was apparent that gasoline was the first piece of the investigative triangle—the fuel. The event that led to the victim’s death—the second piece—was its ignition. But what was the source of ignition?

“Right away, you think homicide,” Derby says. “Was there somebody who threw a match on this guy after the gasoline was poured on him?” But there was no evidence at the scene leading to that conclusion. And once the coroner arrived and the body was turned over, there were no stab wounds, bullet holes or apparent blunt-force trauma. “We did find what appeared to be the remains of a lighter,” Derby says. Bingo. The source of ignition—the third leg of the triangle. Then he learned from police that the man had been despondent. The coroner concluded he had indeed committed suicide.

During his career, Derby figures he has investigated well over 6,000 events like the one in that alley. “And 50 to 60 percent of those were incendiary—meaning set by someone,” he says.

Fall is a busy season for the LAFD. The annual arrival of the notorious Santa Ana winds marks the beginning of the dreaded wildfire season. High winds, stifling temperatures and low humidity combined with an abundance of tinder-dry vegetation results in the sporadic outbreak of fires. And this year has been especially cruel because the devastation began early: In July, three separate wildfires burned nearly 340,000 acres—525 square miles—destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.

Derby says that in addition to the cruel cocktail of factors provided by Mother Nature at that time, there’s another insidious ele­ment that can play a deadly role. “The people who set these fires,” he says ruefully, “the arsonists—they wait for that time of year. As soon as the media starts talking about the Santa Anas and the fire alerts, these people come out of the wood­work. It’s like candy to a baby: Here it is, come and get it. It just happens. And this year, it was a lot sooner.”

The Station fire—the largest of the three fires in 2009, burning 144,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest—was the deadliest, killing two firefighters. The investigation of the cause zeroed in on what officials soon categorized as a crime scene, the area around a scorched 20-foot oak near mile marker 29 on the Angeles Crest Highway, north of La Cañada Flintridge. It was officially clas­sified as an arson fire in early September, and a homicide investigation is under way.

Determining if a fire is arson is one thing. Catching the guilty party is far more challenging, although anyone convicted of the crime has to register as an arson offender, just as sex offenders do for their crimes. And most arsonists fall into a similar personality profile. “Usually they’re not working—they’re loners,” says Derby. “They have very little self-esteem, and they’re looking for some notoriety.”

But attention isn’t all they’re seeking. “There’s a sexual aspect to it, definitely,” Derby says. “When I first started out, I’d hear that from guys who’d been around a long time, and I’d say, ‘Right, there’s some guy at a fire, sitting up in a tree, and he’s getting off on watching.’ I didn’t think I’d ever witness that.”

Then one afternoon Derby was called to a fire scene in the Holly­wood Hills. “This guy set fire to a shrub,” he recalls. “Then he took off his pants and sat down near the fire.” There was just one problem with the plan: The pleasure-seeking perpetrator was on the uphill side of the fire, and it rapidly roared toward him.

By the time Derby arrived on scene, the singed and sheepish offender was wrapped in a sheet and surrounded by incredulous firemen. “I found a wallet, shoes and remnants of a belt in the fire,” says Derby, grinning, “so I asked the guy, ‘Do you mind telling me what happened to your clothes?’ He was too embarrassed to say what he was doing, but it was pretty obvious.”

Most of Derby’s experiences with arsonists are far more serious. In the 1980s, he worked on occasion with a Glendale Fire Department arson investi­gator named John Orr, a well-respected instructor on fire cause and origin. Orr was one of many experts who were called in to help find who was responsible for a series of fires being set in the vast area between Los Angeles and Fresno.

“He’d show up at a fire,” Derby says, “look around at the hillsides and say, ‘Yeah, the fire looks like it burned out this way and turned and went this way.’ He’d look down on the ground and say, ‘You know, I think it started here.’ And then he’d pick up a rock, and there would be a device.”

A device is the signature of arsonists—the incendiary triggers used to set a fire. In these fires, the device being utilized was a lit cigarette and three matches wrapped in ruled yellow writing paper and secured by a rubber band. “We’d say, ‘We’ve been all over this area—how did you find it?’ He’d say, ‘Hey, it’s my training and education.’ ”

Actually, in a bizarre twist, it turned out Orr knew where the device was because he’d put it there. He was ultimately convicted of setting a series of fires—one of which killed four people, including a two-year-old child—and sentenced to life in prison in 1998. “He had what we call a vanity-type situation,” Derby says. “He believed he was too smart to be caught. But he wasn’t. They were able to lift a fingerprint off one of his devices.”

Derby shakes his head. It’s not yet noon, but it’s already been a long day—a long career, too. He’s due to retire from the department in March, and he already has another job with similar responsibilities lined up—private investigator for an insurance company. “The only statute of limitations on being able to do what I do is your health,” he says. And there have been a few chinks in the armor of late. Early on Father’s Day morning 2004, he cracked his right humerus—the bone that runs from the shoulder to the elbow—when he slipped while chasing a suspect. “We got him, though,” Derby says. “No one’s ever gotten away from me.” And then there was a mild stroke a few years ago. “Whole right side of my face went numb.” He made a full recovery.

And while it’s clear he’ll miss the feeling of satisfaction he gets from driving past that towering steel relic from the World Trade Center every morning on his way to work, he says he won’t look back. “I’m a naturally inquisitive guy. I love what I do, and I’m going to keep doing it for as long as I can.”

But right now, more than anything, Tom Derby needs a nap.