When the state forensics lab at McClellan closed last year due to statewide budget cuts, it didn’t just cause a headache for local police departments in Calhoun County, but also put a strain on fire departments that depend on forensics to solve fire-related crimes.
As with evidence in other types of crime, arson evidence is having a tough time quickly getting through the state labs and getting back to local agencies.
“Unless it involves a homicide, it’s not top priority,” said Anniston police Lt. Fred Forsythe.
Most arson cases in Anniston don’t involve serious bodily injury or death. Anniston fire Assistant Chief David Randle said in 2011, there were 28 cases of arson in the city, six of which included deaths.
Any fire-related deaths are reported to the Alabama Fire Marshals, Randle said, who can choose to help out on the case. Many smaller cities depend on the fire marshals in investigations where police and fire departments don’t have their own dedicated fire investigators.
That causes even more strain at the state level. The Alabama Fire Marshals have 22 deputies covering 67 counties and budget cuts aren’t helping to make that coverage area seem smaller.
“The problem right now is overtime has been cut,” said Steve Holmes, the public information officer for the Fire Marshals Office. Holmes said on any given day a deputy could be called to inspect three or four new businesses for fire safety before getting a call to investigate a possible arson in remote section of the state. In 2011, they investigated 839 fires, 271 of which were determined to have been caused by arson.
“It doesn’t take a lot of math to realize that one man can’t do all that in the time allowed to us,” Holmes said.
That means a lot of work has to be done at the local level in these cases. Forsythe said the Police Department works “hand-in-hand” with the Fire Department to solve arsons. Randle said the Fire Department will be the first investigators to a potential fire-related crime scene and will make the decision if a fire is an accident or the work of an arsonist.
From there, the criminal investigation will be handled by the Police Department.
The 28 “confirmed” arsons in Anniston, Randle said, are fires in which the Fire Department’s investigation ruled the fire as arson. Of those 28, nine saw some type of “legal ending or conviction,” Randle said.
In other words, there are still a lot of open arson cases in the city.
Randle and Forsythe didn’t provide numbers for how many arson cases remain unsolved or are cold cases, but both agreed that evaluating evidence is key to the process. That can lead to problems, especially when the crime is aimed specifically at eliminating the evidence.
“If you have a house that’s completely burned to the ground, there’s not a lot to collect there,” Forsythe said. “It really depends on what you’re working with.”
But even when little physical evidence is left behind, Randle said, trained fire investigators can tell a lot by just observing a fire. The way a structure burns, including the spread and speed at which flames move, can tell firefighters a lot about how a fire began.
Anniston fire Chief Tony Taylor said while fire investigations aren’t as quick as they may appear on television, the technology to catch arsonists is always improving and getting faster, and the training for investigators is always improving. And most importantly, there’s no statute of limitations on arson.
“We’ll keep hammering on it and working away,” said Holmes, recalling there was a case solved recently which was 15 years old. “Every few years we’ll get a cold case reopened and be able to solve it.”
Randle said it works the same at the local level as the Fire Department actively works investigations even if they’re waiting for evidence to be examined. The process might not be quick, he said, but it gets results.
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star