Behind the scenes of ATF arson investigations, research

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WDBJ7) WDBJ7 recently got back from Washington, D.C. where we talked with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms about how they investigate arson.

The ATF’s Fire Research Lab is the largest lab in the world dedicated to fire investigations. We found out what goes on inside, and how it ends up helping us outside.

Chad Campanell, Special Agent, Certified Fire Investigator, ATF said, "As close as you can get to real world, the better the training it is."

On this day in DC, the ATF built a building just so they could burn it down.

"It all comes down to being able to effectively investigate the fire,” he said.

Campanell is teaching a three day course to help investigators find out how fires start.

"This is one of the hardest forensic sciences to master,” he said.

The burn was started with a lighter and shredded newspaper. In a matter of minutes, a trashcan fire overtakes the small building.

“The longer a burglary lasts, the longer a murder lasts, the more forensic evidence they're going to leave behind them,” said Campanell. “That's what makes it so hard to do fire investigations because it's one of the only ones that destroys itself.”

Before the burn, the ATF outfitted the building so it could record fire data. Cables measure the temperature, and cameras captured how it spread. All that data gets sent back to the research lab in Maryland.

John Allen, ATF Fire Research Lab Chief said, "Fire science is one of those sciences that has really evolved a lot over the last 20 years."

Allen and his team use science to figure out whether fires were started as a crime, or by accident.

"We're not advocates of either prosecution or defense. We're advocates of science,” said Allen.

The science has helped solve crimes locally. The ATF helped investigate a 2013 church arson in Henry County. It led to the conviction of a man who said racism caused him to burn it down.

The agency also helped with this arson in Roanoke County back in 2008.
Three people went to prison because investigators say they burned down the house to collect insurance money.

At the lab, they have the largest forensic investigative tool in the world. This is the room where the ATF can build a two-story house, and burn it to find out the fire's timeline. To build these replicas, they go as far as knocking on the neighbor's door to find the exact material.

Allen said, "We may go to them and ask them will they sell us or we'll buy you a new couch if we can have your old couch, or we'll buy you a new carpet if we can have your old carpet."

It's all so they can find the truth in how fires start. Campanell says investigations can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. And there's plenty more that goes into it than what people see on television.

"Well it's not solved in 20 minutes, that's for sure,” said Campanell.