Fire Deaths and Thermal Injuries

Most fire deaths are due to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, not direct thermal injury. Exposure to CO can be fatal within minutes. Thermal effects to the body may be slight or severe. The degree of heat does not dictate how long a person survives during a fire. The extent of damage depends on the length of time a decedent is exposed to flames and how close a body is to a fire.

The most important factor in any fire death investigation is determining whether an individual was dead before a fire started (suspected homicide). This is determined by examining the airway for the inhalation of smoke and the measurement of CO content in the blood. These evaluations can only be determined in the morgue.

CO will cause cherry red livor mortis. Occasionally the CO will be negative as is in an explosion which causes death rapidly. A negative CO might initially be confusing, but a quality scene investigation should resolve any problems.

Individuals may die later in the hospital from complications such as inhalation injuries to the airways, infections.

and fluid and electrolyte disorders. Skin burns may range from partial or full thickness to charring and incineration. Heat artifacts include:

1. Changes in height and weight of the body.

2. Changes in hair color. Brown hair may become red and blonde may become gray. Black hair does not change color.

3. Thermal fractures. These are difficult to differentiate from antemortem fractures.

4. Skin splits with evisceration of organs.

Most Are deaths should be x-rayed so that foreign objects will not be overlooked. Blood can usually be obtained from a body regardless of how badly it is burned.

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