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Arson investigation is an art form

By Kay S. Pedrotti To the untrained eye, a burned building may appear to be just ash and charred wood but trained arson investigators know what to look for in the aftermath of a fire. Barnesville police department investigator Ernie McWhorter says when a call goes out for investigation of a fire, he is trained as one of the local responders. Residence fires are routinely investigated to determine the cause, whether potential arson or accident, ‘unless the cause is obvious, like a lightning strike.’ The detective work starts with a ‘360,’ says McWhorter, meaning a walk all the way around the building taking pictures from the outside. These often reveal the part of the house or mobile home where the fire was most intense or may have started. On the inside, if arson is suspected, investigators look for clues like ‘lack of personal items, removal of clothing or pictures from the walls, things like that,’ McWhorter added. Initial photos also document the presence of household items at the time the fire is out, protecting owners and firefighters. Several patterns are generally present in an arson case, like the pattern of splash drops around the fire’s origin site. Those spackles indicate use of a liquid accelerant, ‘because if you pour something, it’s going to spatter and each drop will be indicated by the amount of burn,’ said McWhorter. Another clue to the position of the most intense fire in a building is what McWhorter calls the alligator tail effect. A rafter or other wooden board that has the bumpy appearance of a gator tail on the top side shows the fire started above the location of the board — like in an attic — or if the bumps appear on the bottom side, the fire has burned up from below. Investigators pay attention to other clues, like positions of smoke damage or soot, examination of circuit breaker boxes to determine electric malfunctions and interviews with witnesses. ’Once it’s determined to have been an arson fire,’ McWhorter said, ‘it becomes a crime scene and is turned over to the appropriate law enforcement jurisdiction.’

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