The science of arson - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

The science of arson

By Bob Hallmark - bio | email
Posted by Ellen Krafve - bio | email

LONGVIEW, TX (KLTV) - Catching an arsonist is difficult, seeing that most of the evidence is turned to ash in a fire, but there is a science to it.

Investigators use new methods and technologies to unravel the clues in modern day arsons, which may help them find who is setting the recent rash of church fires.

Around charred ash and timbers, arson investigators regularly look for that cliché "needle in a haystack."

"There's a scientific methodology that's the standard we're held to," said Barry Cates, Longview's Assistant Fire Marshall. "[We] try to recreate that area of origin exactly like it was before the fire started."

Cates is a member of the East Texas Arson Investigators Association, who use every new technology possible to catch arsonists.

"We have a routine that we do that you start from the outside in from the area least damaged to the area most damaged," said Cates.

They make diagrams of the burned area, and graphic animation now helps investigators recreate the moment just before the fire.

"[To] totally reconstruct a whole area you're talking about an item that can be $30,000 worth of equipment...animations so many different tools out there nowadays," said Reggie Cooper, the Marshall Fire Chief.

But, one thing is a sure sign of arson.

"When you have more than one fire that doesn't connect inside a building," said Cates.

Often, the first look at an arson scene does not reveal a whole lot, which is why investigators come back time and time again, looking for the smallest detail. That one little thing could be a signature of who was there.

To the untrained eye, it just looks like a burned building, but there is much more to see. Clues are harder to find. The best tool is talking to people nearest to the blaze.

"You can not beat just good old fashioned arson investigation: your instincts," said Cooper. "You walk into a scene this is just not right."

"You want to stop him before he sets another fire," said Cates.

In spite new technology, fire investigators say there is no substitute for experience when it comes to solving arsons.

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