I staggered out of bed at about 6:30 this morning as usual, ready for the 7:00 Aikido class at the dojo over the road from my apartment. When I got there, however, I found Sensei and a couple of other people standing around outside near the alley that runs behind the building. They quickly filled me in on the details – the fire department had been called around 4:00 am to put out a car on fire, the back entrance (not actually an entrance or exit, as Sensei stacked all his martial arts books there) had been gutted and the dojo (in the basement) had an inch of water in it. Classes would be cancelled until Monday, so I raced back to my apartment to grab my camera – what better opportunity to get some real-world experience for the short course in forensic science I’m teaching next semester? Now pay attention.

Aikido arson (1)The establishing shot – the fire department moved the car away (I’m not sure where to, and I couldn’t find it nearby). We can see pretty much the total extent of the fire damage (the bags in front are from the just-started clean-up operation), and (unprofessionally) the photographer reflected in the back window. From two major clues, we can immediately see that the seat (origin) of the fire was more or less at ground level in the centre or on the left of the doorway (the door was also removed, and I couldn’t find it either). Firstly, the scorch mark on the drainpipe (and melting at the bottom) indicates that the fire was hot near the base of the pipe and cooler higher up (soot sticks to cooler surfaces). Secondly, the glass in the panel on the right is broken on the left-hand side, indicating that this side was hotter – there is also soot here, suggesting that the fire was left of centre.

Aikido arson (2)This is a briefcase that you can see on the lower left in the picture above. The pattern of melting indicates that the fire was hotter in front of it (note especially the bubbling on the handle), and we can also see that the glass panels are broken here. This area is where I believe the fire started.

Aikido arson (3)These tyre tracks were left when the fire department moved the car out of the way, and there is a similar mark where the car was parked in the alley. One of the car’s tyres was on fire, but was not completely burnt when the fire was extinguished. When the car was then moved, only one section of the tyre would leave a significant sooty mark. This to me was a little odd. If a car is sets alight accidentally, it (presumably) starts in the engine (through a battery short) or the fuel tank, leading to a huge fire. If a car is deliberately torched by setting one of the tyres alight, the temperature would not be high enough to do all the damage we can see. Perhaps the fire simply spread to one of the tyres, though without the car it’s impossible to say. There was quite a bit of safety glass strewn around the area (so something was hot enough to break the car windows), but no large soot marks on the surrounding walls indicating a major fire.

Aikido arson (4)A close-up of some of the books on the stairs behind the doorway. Note the patten of charring, especially the bubbling on the picture frame and the pristine nature of the rolled poster. There was another stack of books closer to the fire than this one (you can see them in the other photos), so only those directly exposed were charred.

Aikido arson (5)A close-up of the concrete sill just underneath the briefcase. This break is new, and may have occurred when the fire was put out – but the concrete would probably have cracked with the heat from the fire. Note also the soot collecting under the sill and on the left corner, and the hole in the front veneer. This may indicate that the sea of the fire was pretty much there, though without the car it’s difficult to say for sure.

Aikido arson (6)Finally, an angle standing on the right-hand side of the doorway. From here, we can see the books, briefcase and concrete sill break, and also a metal gate. This was once mounted just in front of the briefcase, and the fire department moved it over during the fire-fighting activities. Note the scorch marks on the near side of the gate, indicating that the fire was hottest in that direction (i.e. right on the left-hand side of the door frame). There is also a blob of melted roof plastic on the top of the gate that’s a little hard to see in this shot. Note especially the completely undamaged plastic chairs on the left and lack of soot on the walls, indicating ether a very small and hot fire or some object inbetween the fire and the chairs (i.e. the car).

Those are my limited and inexperienced observations. Any further theories? Note: I do not think that North Korea was involved.