Dogs for Australian wildfire investigations?

Friday 24 May 2019

For decades, Assistant State Foresters John Bird and Don Kelley have helped train and certify bloodhounds and their handlers from across West Virginia to track down forest fire arsonists, sniff out other crime suspects, and locate missing hikers and hunters.

The services of the two veteran Division of Forestry fire investigators and their K-9 colleagues have also been sought by wildfire officials in dozens of states, ranging from Georgia to Washington and Arizona to North Dakota.

But interest in work performed by the bloodhound-assisted West Virginia forest fire investigators has officially gone global with the arrival on Monday of an ex-Australian wildfire investigator, who spent the week shadowing Bird and Kelley, and their dogs, Boone and Raisey, on training exercises.

“I became aware of this program several years ago,” said Richard Woods, a recently retired Australian wildfire investigator who now lives in his country’s capital city of Canberra. “I’d heard about how it works and how effective it is, but after seeing it first hand, I’m convinced it’s something that needs to be promoted widely.”

In the brushy, sparsely populated wildlands where most of Australia’s larger wildfires take place, “investigators often have nothing to start with,” said Woods. There’s no accelerant to look for, since it only takes a match start a fire in the tinder-dry terrain, “and there are usually no witnesses to question, since the area is so remote. But with dogs like these, you can show up with them three days after a fire was set and be led to a house where a suspect is inside.”

Australian wildfire investigators employ the same basic techniques as their North American counterparts to track down arsonists, Woods said, “only we don’t use tracking dogs. The reason for that is that people there just don’t know about them and what they are capable of doing. They can achieve so much, and they’re such nice dogs with great personalities.”

Bloodhounds, with a sense of smell estimated to be 300 times more powerful than humans, are not a part of the dog breed mix found in Australia, according to Woods. “I don’t know why that is,” he said.

While West Virginia forest fire arson K-9 teams have racked up an enviable arrest record over the years, their deterrent effect may be more significant, according to Kelley.

“We can’t prove what’s been prevented, but I’m convinced we’ve gone a long way toward eliminating acts of arson by repeat offenders,” he said. “When I first started working with bloodhounds 25 years ago, arson was the No. 1 cause of forest fires in the state. Now, it’s No. 3, and the total number of fires is way down.”

Woods is taking a video of what he experienced with the West Virginia forest fire investigators back to Australia as part of an effort to set up a similar program there through the university with which he is now affiliated. “The program needs to be expanded in this country, too,” he said. “It would be good to have enough bloodhound teams in each area to allow for some redundancy and back-up.”


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