15 Sep 23

How ATF Investigates Acts of Arson and Suspicious Fires

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Last Updated on: 16th September 2023, 03:31 pm

How ATF Investigates Acts of Arson and Suspicious Fires

When fires destroy property and endanger lives, determining the cause matters. Accidental fires get handled differently than intentional arson. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) brings specialized expertise to investigating suspicious blazes. This article examines ATF’s fire investigation capabilities, use of science and technology, cooperation with local agencies, and efforts to curb arson.

ATF’s Role in Fire Investigations

Congress first gave ATF authority to probe arson and explosives crimes in the 1970 Organized Crime Control Act. Since then, ATF’s fire investigation responsibilities have steadily grown. Today its National Response Team (NRT) deploys to help state and local partners investigate major arson and explosives incidents. ATF also has a National Center for Explosives Training and Research in Huntsville, Alabama conducting research on fire scene analysis and arson science.

ATF fire investigators focus on complex, large-scale cases involving serial arsonists, fires with major property damage, injuries or fatalities, and terrorism links. Local fire departments handle routine fire investigations, but call in ATF when suspicious patterns emerge or evidence points to intentional arson.

Conducting Fire Scene Investigations

Fire scene examination requires meticulous evidence collection and analysis. ATF Certified Fire Investigators (CFIs) document burn patterns, collect samples, reconstruct ignition sources, and scrutinize debris. They interview witnesses, consult weather reports, and research prior emergency calls to the location. The goal is determining a fire’s exact origin and cause.

ATF follows the scientific principles in NFPA 921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations for systematic fire scene examination. This ensures consistent, thorough evidence evaluation [3]. By pairing fire science with investigative techniques, ATF CFIs can reliably classify fires as accidental, natural, or incendiary.

Using Science and Technology

Advanced technologies help ATF fire investigations in many ways:

  • Chemical analysis of debris identifies ignitable liquids or explosives.
  • ATF’s Fire Research Lab studies how different materials burn.
  • 3D laser scanning creates detailed diagrams of fire scenes.
  • Drones photograph overhead views of large incident sites.
  • Video analysis examines footage from security cameras or witnesses.
  • Cell phone data provides maps of arsonists’ movements.

Combining scientific findings with witness statements and records builds a solid factual case regarding fires’ origins. This technology assists ATF’s work and also helps train local fire investigators in using best practices.

Cooperation with Local Partners

ATF collaborates closely with local fire departments, police, and prosecutors during investigations. Fire marshals know their jurisdictions best. ATF lends expertise but aims to complement, not complicate, local operations.

ATF and local agencies share intelligence, resources, and personnel. Joint task forces coordinate responses spanning multiple jurisdictions. ATF trains local fire investigators through its Advanced Arson Investigation Training Program. This cultivates a network of qualified professionals practicing consistent standards nationwide.

Cooperation also occurs through ATF’s arson and explosives National Response Teams (NRTs). These elite groups deploy when requested by local agencies to assist with large fire scenes. NRTs provide capabilities like 3D scanning, evidence analysis, interview support, and litigation assistance.

Combating Arson-for-Profit Schemes

Arson is often used to collect insurance money through fraud. ATF prioritizes uncovering these “arson-for-profit” schemes. Warning signs include:

  • Businesses with declining revenue that take out new insurance shortly before fires.
  • Owners inflating property values on claims.
  • Suspicious financial transactions indicating staging.
  • Multiple fires at the same site.

Insurance company referrals help identify such cases. ATF can obtain warrants to examine phone and financial records, and use undercover operations to infiltrate arson rings. Convictions can lead to prison plus restitution for insurers.

Prosecuting Arsonists and Bombers

ATF works with U.S. Attorneys nationwide to prosecute federal arson and explosives cases. Key statutes used include:

  • Arson in federal buildings or interstate commerce (18 USC §844(i))
  • Arson at places of religious worship (18 USC §247)
  • Possessing or making incendiary devices (18 USC §842(i))
  • Using fire or bombs to commit other crimes (18 USC §844(h))

ATF evidence helps build strong cases leading to lengthy sentences for convicted defendants. In fiscal year 2020, ATF arson investigations resulted in over 150 years of cumulative prison time [1].

Fire Prevention Through Education

Beyond investigations, ATF aims to prevent arson through community outreach and education. ATF provides training on arson awareness, fire safety, and explosives storage. The agency partners with volunteer fire departments to share best practices. Publicizing arrests and sentencing also deters would-be arsonists.

Youth firesetter intervention programs try to recognize and correct dangerous behavior early on. ATF works with schools and families to steer children away from fire misuse and towards more positive goals.


ATF’s specialized expertise in fire investigation, forensic science, and prosecution makes the agency a key ally for local fire departments confronting large, suspicious blazes.