Travelling to the state of West Virginia in May 2019, Richard Woods conducted a one-week study of a program involving Bloodhound Units used in wildfire investigation to assess their effectiveness. The results can only be described as outstanding. The aim of this study was to assess the practicality of expanding the use of this program internationally, where serial wildfire arson has been identified as a problem.
The worldwide problem of wildfire arson
Wildfire arson is a global challenge faced by fire and policing agencies. In Australia from 1995 to 2006, a study by the Australian Institute of Criminology suggested 50% of wildfires were either deliberate (13%) or suspicious (37%) (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2008).
Internationally, experience also suggests due to lack of evidence and a sustained high rate of deliberate fire-lighting, agencies often regard the successful identification of those responsible to be a significant challenge in the investigation process. However, a very valuable tool has been successfully used to assist in addressing the problem of wildfire arson in the State of West Virginia in the USA.
The West Virginia Division of Forestry Bloodhound Program
The West Virginia Division of Forestry have taken the wildfire investigation process to another level, using bloodhounds as a specialist means to find the offender responsible – with great success. Armed with two experienced dogs by the names of ‘Boone’ and ‘Raisy’, along with investigators/bloodhound handlers John Bird and Donald Kelley, the West Virginia Division of Forestry have had some remarkable success tracking, identifying and convicting wildfire arsonists and reducing deliberate firelighting offences across their State.
The program was formed in 1986 by the Virginia Department of Forestry. Being the adjoining state, the West Virginia Division of Forestry learnt of the use of the bloodhounds and initiated their own program.
Essentially, the role of the dog is to identify suspects through evidence left at a wildfire scene and to then track their direction of travel, be it on foot or in a vehicle. The bloodhound’s signals confirm how or in which direction they travelled from the origin and can validate witness information and in many cases, identify the arsonist.
Investigations across West Virginia had traditionally identified a high proportion of ‘debris burning’ and ‘incendiary’ wildfire causes, as opposed to other non-human intervention causes such as ‘lightning’. But it was rare to identify the arsonists responsible. However, over time the deployment of the bloodhounds at suspicious fire scenes, has seen a higher rate of arsonists identified and convicted. This in turn has also seen an overall reduction of the number of arson fires.
The bloodhound breed
Bloodhounds are world renowned to be the most effective canine breed used in tracking humans across the landscape. This instinct has been refined in the United States by the West Virginia Department of Forestry and law enforcement agencies.
Syrotuck in his book Scent and the Scenting Dog (2000), describes how the main ingredient of human scent is bacteria, acting on dead skin cells naturally shed through a process known as ‘putrefaction’. Humans can shed these dead skin cells at the rate of up to 100,000 per minute while sitting and up to 10 million moving at 8km/h. This scent can be left on shoe imprints or across the landscape on roads, footpaths or on vegetation at the wildfire scene. The bloodhound uses it as a distinguishing track to follow the ‘exit path’ of an offender.
This breed are renowned to be very effective in detecting human scent when compared to other dog breeds due to their anatomy. Subsequently in West Virginia, they have been proven to be very efficient in arson investigations. This is supported, ‘…the potential error rate of a veteran bloodhound-handler team is low and can be a useful tool for law enforcement personnel.’ (Harvey, L.M., & Harvey, L.W., 2003).
As bloodhounds have been used by
both federal and state law-enforcement
agencies in the United States over many years, their reliability has also been proven in criminal investigations. Several research programs have tested this reliability. One such study was conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2004. In conjunction with the Southern California Bloodhound Handlers’ Coalition, the FBI researched the viability of human-scent evidence on bomb/arson remains. Using twenty bloodhound teams, a series of tests were established. Samples of pipe bombs were handled by ‘offenders’ and then detonated; two arson devices (a metal petrol can, plastic petrol can) were also handled by test ‘offenders’ and then burnt for two minutes, before being extinguished. Scent was collected from all remnant items on sterile gauze pads. Two weeks later, six test stations were set up and trails were placed in a format so that each dog indicated on detecting the matching scent, trail to, and properly identify the correct ‘offender’ with new trails established for each dog team to be tested. The results of this research supported their reliability. ‘The overall combined score for positive-scent matches was 78.3 percent. Of those dogs that indicated a positive-scent match, 88.6 percent positively identified the correct target. There were no false-positive identifications in this study.’ (Stockham, Slavin & Kift, 2004)
The investigation process
The success of the Bloodhound Program relies heavily on two well-regarded areas of wildfire investigation.
Firstly, like any crime scene, the diligence of first-attending crews is essential in maintaining a pristine site, which is not disturbed through firefighting tactics. Fire Crews from the West Virginia Division of Forestry are all trained in the National Wildfire Co-ordinating Group (NWCG) ‘FI 110 Wildland Fire Observations and Origin Scene Protection for First Responders’ course. They also are aware of the need to call in the Bloodhound Unit on suspicious fires.
Secondly, the accurate identification of the Specific Origin Area or Ignition Area of a wildfire is vital. The investigator relies on the skills obtained in the NWCG ‘FI 210 Wildland Fire Origin and Cause Determination Course’, to accurately interpret the post-fire scene and correctly determine the origin and cause of the fire. This is vital to ensure the bloodhound tracking process is accurately initiated. This evidence is collected by the bloodhound handler and introduced to the dog as the scent to be traced.
Therefore, a key element to the success of the program, is the handler also having experience in investigating wildfires.
Tracking by the bloodhound
The handler introduces the bloodhound to the residual scent they consider may be linked to the offender, by collecting the evidence in a sterile gauze (which may be extracted from a shoe imprint on surface fuel). The material is then placed in a sealed plastic bag. This is then presented to the dog with the sample scent, being the signal to commence tracking. The bloodhound is immediately given a command to ‘go to work’, and will eliminate those not associated with the scent, such as firefighters in attendance, along with bystanders. The dog follows a process of identifying and following the scent trail. Importantly, the tracking of the scent can take place days after the event, after rain or through areas of heavy foot traffic over many miles following the scent through various types of terrain. As highlighted by the West Virginia investigators, even if the scent ‘goes cold’ at a point, the involvement of the dog still provides the investigator valuable information about the direction or method of travel an offender may have taken from a fire scene.
During a successful tracking event, the bloodhound can end up at the front door of a residence or at an air-conditioning outlet of a building where the offender is located, or single out the individual within a group of people, sometimes a great distance from the fire scene.
The evidence in this study showed this program as having a major impact in driving down the rate of wildfire arson in West Virginia and is seen as an essential part of their wildfire investigation process, leading to the conviction of numerous wildfire arsonists across the State. In 2014, their Forestry Department was quoted in local media on the success of the program, ‘The agency’s three field investigators and their bloodhounds have put a serious dent in arson rates. Two decades ago, the State suffered thousands of forest fires every year. Now the average is in the hundreds.’ (West Virginia Gazette, 2014).
In my experience, the West Virginia Division of Forestry Bloodhound program is a best-practice example of how the use of these remarkable dogs can be successfully applied in identifying wildfire arsonists. The program gives investigators an additional tool to be used in wildfire arson investigations and provides an opportunity to significantly advance investigations to eliminate or endorse a wildfire arson suspect, often when limited evidence is available. The program also provides the agency with a high-profile deterrent in preventing wildfire arson at minimal additional cost throughout the year.
I believe this program should be carefully considered by any jurisdiction which has a serial wildfire arson problem.
For more information, go to www.wildfirecause.com
- Australian Institute of Criminology. “Bushfire Arson Bulletin No. 59” https://aic.gov.au/publications/bfab/bfab059. Accessed 2 June 2019.
- Harvey L, M., & Harvey J.W., 2003, “Reliability of bloodhounds in criminal investigations”, Journal of Forensic Science 48: 811–816.
- Stockham R.A; Slavin D.L & Kift, W. 2004, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Specialized Use of Human Scent in Criminal Investigations”, https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/about-us/lab/forensic-science-communications/fsc/july2004/research/2004_03_research03.htm. Accessed 23 May 2019
- Syrotuck, W. 2000, “Scent and the Scenting Dog”, Barkleigh Productions, Pennsylvania, USA.
- West Virginia Division of Forestry, “Bloodhound Anatomy” [PowerPoint slides], 2001.
- West Virginia Division of Forestry, “Causes of Wildfire in West Virginia”, http://www.wvforestry.com/fire_prev.cfm?menucall=fire. Accessed 1 July 2019.
- West Virginia Division of Forestry, “Spring Fire Season, April 20, 2016”, http://www.wvforestry.com/Fire%20Report.pdf. Accessed 1 July 2019.
- West Virginia Gazette, 2014, “Bloodhounds help investigators find forest-fire arsonists”
- https://www.wvgazettemail.com/outdoors/bloodhounds-help-investigators-find-forest-fire-arsonists/article_70ba7c33-cb65-56d7-8455-1af89496c890.html, Accessed 2 July 2019.