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Kentucky’s bloodhound arson dog program

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There is nothing that can equal the scent-ability of the dog that we can take to fire scenes and use.

Leah MacSwords, Director
Kentucky Division of Forestry
photo of Bloodhound Wildland Arson Investigation Program

The Kentucky Division of Forestry’s (KDF) new Bloodhound Wildland Arson Investigation Program is the result of a partnership with the Kentucky Department of Corrections Bell County Forestry Camp. Funded through a grant from the U.S. Forest Service, this program has quickly become an effective tool for incident commanders and arson investigators across eastern Kentucky.

The ability for bloodhounds to track has been well-documented and demonstrated. Whether an arsonist is local or has to travel miles to set a wildfire, most are well within the range of the animal, which has been documented successfully tracking humans as far as 130 miles. The animal’s entire anatomy is designed to track scents.

Bloodhounds have 176 times as many olfactory receptor cells as human beings, housed inside their characteristically long, slender snout.
The long, swinging ears actually touch the ground and fan residual scent molecules toward the dog’s nose as it follows a trail.
The thick skin wrinkles on the face and neck capture and concentrate odor molecules in their folds.
Their excessive drool when working even serves as an additional odor trap.
Their large, muscular paws and frames give them the strength and endurance needed for tracking humans across mountainous terrain.

“The K-9s have the ability to survey a variety of terrain in a fire scene in an incredibly short time,” says Adam Sloan, an officer with the Kentucky Department of Corrections. “The dogs dramatically increase the investigator’s ability to retrieve an accurate reflection of the people present at a fire scene and increase the chances of finding the responsible party.”

When a call comes in to the regional division of forestry office stating that there is a fire, a forest firefighting crew is dispatched. When possible, a dog team goes with them. While the division’s firefighters are controlling the blaze, the dog team gets to work. Once the location of the origin of the fire is determined, a sterile gauze pad is placed on the surface of the source for 20 minutes. The gauze is then placed in a plastic bag from which the dog sniffs. The first thing it does is smell everyone on-scene to eliminate them from the source. Once it has the scent, the tracking dog takes the officers from the scene of the fire to the location of the suspect.

Officer Adam Sloan and fellow officer Josh Brock have investigated eight wildland fires with their bloodhound arson dogs, Chloe and Magic, since the program began in the fall of 2014. “We had a fire that occurred in Knox County,” said Brock. “We were able to determine the fire’s point of origin — a fence that had been cleared below the black top road. At that point we couldn’t tell if the fire had been started as arson or not.” Scent swabs were left at the scene for 20 minutes, and then Magic went to work. She immediately traced the scent back down the road to a black Mazda truck parked in a shed at a nearby home.

The Kentucky State Police (KSP) were notified and responded quickly. State Trooper Sammy Faris was first on the scene, soon followed by Detective Joshua Bunch, an arson investigator for KSP. Detective Bunch questioned several individuals in the area, including a person of interest who had driven the truck.

The driver admitted to setting the fire trying to burn out a fence row. This time the fire wasn’t arson, just a debris fire getting out of hand, so the person causing the fire was only charged with the cost to the state for putting the fire out and was not arrested.

Though Magic and Chloe have been trained to be professional investigators, to them and other dogs like them, the work is just a big, fun game. “All she’s asking for in return is a pat on the head, somebody to tell her she did a good job,” said Officer Sloan.

The cost to the state and local resources for fighting wildland fires due to arson is in the millions, while the damage to forests runs in the tens of millions of dollars. Arson is tough to prove, but a dog is a huge asset. “There is nothing that can equal the scent-ability of the dog that we can take to fire scenes and use,” KDF Director Leah MacSwords says. “We hope to grow our partnership with the Department of Corrections and Kentucky State Police to find and prosecute wildland arsonists. Our goal is to eliminate wildland arson in the state and with Magic and Chloe on the job we have one more tool to making that happen.”