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AFT Agents stage fire to train prosecutors

SAN ANTONIO – On Wednesday morning, federal and state prosecutors were taught the science behind a fire investigation with a real fire demonstration at the San Antonio Fire Department Training Academy.

The demonstration was part of a three-day course by Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents to help prosecutors gain knowledge that can help in the courtroom.

"If they're going to be prosecuting the case they need to have some kinds of understanding and knowledge behind it so they know what to ask, what kinds of things we do, what kinds of questions we can answer," said Ryan McCormick, an ATF Fire Investigator.

Two small buildings, the size of large wooden crates, were set on fire using different types of accelerants.

Each controlled burn took less than five minutes to become fully engulfed.

Firefighters were on standby and quickly doused the flames.

Once the fires were out, the investigation began.

"We're looking at fire patterns, we're talking to witnesses, we're doing all sorts of different aspects throughout the fire investigation.  We're looking at the electrical system, we're looking at systems within the structure, looking at those different items and then eliminating things," said McCormick.

A specially trained black Labrador retriever named Kai, was also on scene, showing how arson dogs can identify the use of accelerants in a fire.

"It's a scientific process of going through, collecting data," said McCormick.

Katie Arnold, a Hays County felony prosecutor said she'd never worked an arson case but after the course, she felt she'd be well prepared.

"Now I have a better idea of who to call as a witness, what kind of investigation they actually go through, how they navigate a scene to a potential crime," she said.  

ATF agents said these type of training courses are offered periodically.  The three-day course wraps up Thursday.