For fire fighters and fire investigators, it is as close to a natural laboratory as you can get.
It’s part of a course being taught by trainers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; an intensive three-week program called "advanced cause and origin."
This is the first time the course, which has a three to five year waiting list, is being taught in the field, away from the ATF’s Georgia fires school
"This is invaluable," said John Golder, the ATF’s chief fire investigation trainer. "Typically we train in a 10x12 (foot) room, here they have to determine where the fire started in a three bedroom house with furniture and appliances." The students are aspiring fire marshals and investigators as well as investigators coming back for retraining.
The area chosen for training is Southwest of the airport, where runway 10 Right will soon be built.
There are dozens of single-family homes and townhouses acquired by Chicago that have been sitting vacant for the past two years, and rather than simply tear them down, the City’s Aviation Department is coordinating their use for this three-week long training session.
"We are thrilled this could be used for such a great purpose," said Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino.
But before you can investigate a fire, you have to start one.
Each burn is set up differently. Some are set to resemble accidental causes like electrical malfunctions. Others use accelerants to simulate arson.
The trainee investigators must determine where the fire started and why.
According to Golder, they look at fire patterns then gather evidence that will be analyzed later in a lab. The goal is to teach them everything they need to know not only to determine the cause, but to support their findings in court. While the fires are burning, researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology are measuring and recording each blaze.
That information will be used to help firefighters determine safer ways to knock down the flames.
Chicago’s First Deputy Fire Commissioner, Bob Hoff calls thee ATF class a once in a lifetime opportunity.
"Between the testing and the candidate firefighter training," he says, "this will save lives, both of firefighters and civilians."