Bloodhounds Magic and Chloe on the trail of arsonists in Eastern Kentucky

Arson officer Josh Brock trained with Chloe recently as she tracked a subject during a training exercise at the Bell County Forestry Camp near Pineville. The Bell County Forestry Camp, a state minimum security institution, has partnered with The Kentucky Division of Forestry, to provide bloodhounds for arson investigations.
Arson officer Josh Brock trained with Chloe recently as she tracked a subject during a training exercise at the Bell County Forestry Camp near Pineville. The Bell County Forestry Camp, a state minimum security institution, has partnered with The Kentucky Division of Forestry, to provide bloodhounds for arson investigations. Herald-Leader

CHENOA — Woodland fires have been a persistent problem in Eastern Kentucky for years, with state forestry crews responding to nearly 6,000 in the 10 top counties from 2005 through 2014.

Many were accidents, but people started thousands of the blazes deliberately, destroying or damaging trees on tens of thousands of acres and causing millions in damages.

The fall fire season started Oct. 1, and it's a good bet there will be more wildfires in the coming months.

But people who set the woods on fire this fall will have powerful noses on their trails: bloodhounds Magic and Chloe.

The 7-year-old sisters have such a razor-sharp sense of smell that they can pick up the scent of skin cells a person shed at the site of a fire, even after the heat of the blaze.

"It's phenomenal," said Mike Harp, assistant fire chief for the Kentucky Division of Forestry. "It's unreal to see them work."

Magic and Chloe are among 13 bloodhounds who live at the Bell County Forestry Camp, a minimum-security prison surrounded by steep, wooded hills in the southern part of the county.

Inmates help care for the dogs.

The camp first got bloodhounds in 2005, after officers with the Kentucky Department of Corrections went to Louisiana to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Lt. Keith Fuson said.

Through a contact with Louisiana officials, Kentucky officers brought five bloodhounds from a prison there for a pilot program at the forestry camp, said Fuson, commander of the K-9 unit.

There was a significant drop in people walking away from the forestry camp after officers began working with the dogs, Fuson said.

"They have been a huge deterrent on escapes," said Fuson, who handles a bloodhound named Southpaw.

Some other prisons in the state have since gotten bloodhounds.

Harp said the idea to use some of the dogs to help investigate forest fires came up two years ago, through discussions with fire officials from other states.

West Virginia has a successful program using bloodhounds for forest arson cases. Officers there shared information with Kentucky officials, Harp said.

The work is the same: tracking people.

However, Adam Sloan, who handles Magic, and Josh Brock, Chloe's handler, took extra training with the dogs on investigating forest fires.

Sloan and Brock are both officers at the Bell County prison. The two and their dogs are the only teams in Kentucky trained to help investigate woodland fires, Sloan said.

When firefighters respond to a wildfire in the southeast part of the state and suspect arson, the Kentucky Division of Forestry calls for the dogs.

The initial tasks include pinpointing the spot where the fire started, and, with any luck, finding a "scent item" left behind by the person who set the blaze.

Brock said he and Sloan have used items at fire scenes including a cigarette butt, a beer can and a pair of fencing pliers to give the dogs the scent of the person they're after.

If investigators can't locate an item, they can put a sterile, 4-inch square gauze pad on the ground where the fire started, and it will pick up microscopic skin cells left behind, Harp said.

Magic or Chloe then sniff each person who has been at the fire, accounting for that scent among the collection they have picked up at the site, then search for the missing scent.

"These dogs' natural instinct is to track," Sloan said. "All they know is, 'this is what I've got to find.'"

Brock and Sloan and both dogs go to fires together. One dog starts the search while the other stands by in case she's needed.

"It's always good to have a fresh nose," Brock said. "If one gets tired, you can pick up with the other one."

The dogs don't follow a trail the way it's shown in the movies, running headlong and baying. Magic and Chloe work quietly and intently, noses near the ground as they cross back and forth over the trail to make sure they're still on it.

They don't bark, although Magic, who weighs about 90 pounds and can tug a 240-pound man off his feet when she's excited, makes a snorting sound when the trail is good, Sloan said.

The dogs can follow a trail of tiny skin cells on the ground, even if the person left the fire scene in a car or on an all-terrain vehicle. They also can pick up the scent of their quarry through the air.

They're not foolproof — even bloodhounds have off days — and the distance they can trail someone varies depending on factors including weather conditions and the age of the scent.

But their abilities amaze even their handlers.

Sloan said there have been times during training when he was convinced that Magic wasn't going the right way, only to look up and see the person she was searching for.

In one case, Magic picked up a scent from an ATV track and successfully followed it for about two miles to the vehicle, through fire and smoke on both sides of the trail, Sloan said.

"It surprises me every day," he said.

Dogs, like people, have different personalities. Handlers work closely with their dogs to figure out their quirks and understand their body language.

For instance, Brock said, he wraps the plastic baggie with the gauze pad around Chloe's nose when giving her the scent, so her breathing sucks the bag tight.

But Sloan said if he covered Magic's nose, she might balk. She likes to have the gauze held next to her nose.

Fuson said he can tell by the body language of his dog, Southpaw, how good the trail is. If she's pulling tight against the lead rope with her tail in the air, it's a good trail; if the scent fades, her tail droops and she drops her nose closer to the ground.

The Division of Forestry and the Department of Corrections began using Magic and Chloe for wildfire investigations last year.

Harp said wildfires burned 41,037 acres in 2014 across Kentucky, with forested land making up about 85 percent of that. Arson was to blame for about 64 percent of the wildfires in the 10 worst-hit counties from 2005 through 2014, he said.

However, officials said they think the fear of being tracked down by a bloodhound deterred people from starting wildfires in the first year of the program.

After officials publicized the bloodhounds in local media and on YouTube in southeast Kentucky, there was a noticeable drop in the number of fires in counties where the bloodhounds were used in fall 2014, but not in nearby counties, Harp said.

"It's definitely made people second-guess going out and setting fires," Sloan said.

Harp and other officials said they've heard various reasons why people set forest fires in Eastern Kentucky, which has more wildfires than Western Kentucky.

The purported reasons include that people are clearing spots to grow marijuana, striking at the government or neighbors for some reason, or seeking a thrill.

At one time, the state hired extra help to fight fires, so some people set fires to get a job. The state now hires crews ahead of time to be on call for firefighting, removing the incentive to start fires to get work, Harp said.

The hope is that the program will continue to drive down the number of arson fires, which the Division of Forestry also works with Kentucky State Police to investigate.

Authorities also need help from residents reporting arson, however, said Leah W. MacSwords, director of the Division of Forestry.

"Everybody loses when wildland arsonists strike. Families can lose their homes, firefighters are put at unnecessary risk, taxpayers foot the bill for suppressing the fires and jobs are often eliminated when the forest resource is reduced," MacSwords said. "To bring arson to an end, we need the entire community to get involved."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader