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Arson Dogs

Arson is the leading cause of wildland fires in the state, according to forestry officials, and the state averages 1,447 such fires each year. To track down arsonists in southeastern Kentucky, officials have enlisted the help of bloodhounds.

Michael Harp, assistant fire chief of the Kentucky Division of Forestry, said Kentucky ranks high nationally for the number of fires intentionally set. “If we’re not number one, we’re really close to the top,” he said.

Forestry focuses on education and prevention, Harp said, and the bloodhounds are a valued addition to the toolbox. “They’re very good at their job,” he said.

Home base for these special dogs is the Bell County Forestry Camp, a 300-bed minimum security state prison, about 14 miles southeast of Pineville. “That is a program started many years ago to lessen the number of escapees from that prison,” Harp said. “We did a partnership with them, and so we get to use several of their dogs in our firefighting efforts.”

The dogs are on standby, and from their central location can reach the scene of the crime before it is disturbed by others. Warden David Green said the prison is the sole provider of arson dogs for the Department of Corrections. “We train the dogs here on site with our officers and the Division of Forestry,” he said.

Lt. Keith Fuson, commander of the canine unit, said bloodhounds are the dog he prefers. “Bloodhounds have better noses,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll get some arguments on that. The folds that the bloodhounds have on their face, especially when they drop their head, you’ll see all the wrinkles come up and the big long ears, my understanding is that it helps fold the scent up to their nose,” he explained.

The dogs can track the scent of humans at the fire’s origin, whether it’s a footprint or an object. “I know one of my officers tracked off a set of pliers that the guy had dropped,” Fuson said.

When officers see scuff marks on the ground, they lay a small square gauze pad on that spot, pick up the gauze with plastic bag, seal it, and then let the dog smell it. “These dogs will amaze you what they can do,” he said. “And they have days that I don’t know what you can do to get away from them.”

Michael Froelich, forest program specialist, said 90 percent of the fires in that area are deliberately set. When fire breaks out, Froelich calls on help from the canine unit. “Once we do find point of origin, the dogs have done their job in getting us where we need to go to be able to question suspects,” he said.

Bill Steele, director of the Kentucky Division of Forestry, said use of arson dogs is not unique to Kentucky. “Just the fact that people know these dogs can be brought out on a fire and are very good at sniffing out evidence, following the trail. I think that’s a deterrent in itself.”

Officer Adam Sloan of the Bell County Forestry Camp canine unit agreed. “Bloodhounds, they love attention and they love to please. And when you give them that scent, when they start tracking, they know if they do a good job they’re going to get the praise and the attention,” he said.

Sloan said the officers always work in pairs, with one handling the dog and the other officer watching the back of the first officer. “We are armed. So that way, the person handling the dog concentrates on the dog. The person behind them scans ahead and watches them to see if anyone’s hiding behind a tree.”

The bloodhound’s natural instinct is to hunt, Sloan said. “Does she like it and enjoy it? Yeah, I think she does,” he said.

Officer Joshua Brock, who works with Chloe, said the dog is calm and methodical. “She doesn’t get in a hurry for anything. We work at a steady pace, get the job done.”

Brock knows by the tension in the leash if Chloe is on track. “You can tell by the lead, it’s a constant pull. When she’s not really on track, there’ll be a lot of slack in the lead,” Brock said.

He said sometimes he’ll see Chloe tracking in one direction and he’ll think the suspect didn’t go that way. “But then, she’s the one that knows. They’re in control. So as long as you let them do the tracking and the working, she’ll always end up in success.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2212 which originally aired on April 8, 2017. Watch the full episode.