John Bird would love to put himself and his partner out of business.
Bird, an investigator for the state Division of Forestry, and his bloodhound partner, Jesup, find arsonists who set forest fires.
An ideal year for Bird would be one in which neither he nor his canine co-worker had a single wildfire to investigate. In southern West Virginia, an area notorious for intentionally set fires, that’s not a realistic goal, but in the 19 years since the bloodhound program began, the number of arson-related fires has declined dramatically.
“When I first started investigating, we literally had thousands of fires every year,” Bird said. “Now we’re down to hundreds, which is still too many, but the problem isn’t as severe today as it once was.”
In Mingo County in the late 1990s, for example, it wasn’t unusual to have up to 80 arson-caused wildfires in a single year. Last year, there were three.
Bird said there are a number of reasons for that falloff, but two of the most important are the Division of Forestry’s efforts at fire-prevention education, and the bloodhounds’ growing reputation for sniffing out arsonists and helping to put them in jail.
“We’ve had great success at apprehending arsonists,” he said. “And the word has gotten out. It doesn’t matter if people are on foot, riding four-wheelers or inside vehicles. The dogs can track them back to their homes. Once people realize that, they tend to be a whole lot less inclined to go out and start fires.”
With noses more than a million times more sensitive than those of their human handlers, the agency’s bloodhounds have proven themselves capable of some amazing olfactory feats.
“We’ve tracked some suspects for miles,” Bird said. “We’ve had cases where the suspect had set fires from his vehicle and the dog was still able to track him. We even had one case in which the dog tracked seven different people to their homes. It turned out that all of them were involved in a single arson. Every time we harness these dogs, they do something that amazes us.”
As an investigator, Bird sometimes faces the odd task of making sure he doesn’t put the dog in the position of performing a feat so amazing the legal system might have trouble buying it.
“We try to keep it sensible,” he explained. “If we tried the things you see in the movies — for example, following a trail months after the fact — the courts wouldn’t find that reasonable. If I can get Jesup on the trail within five to seven days, that’s reasonable.”
Tracking suspects with bloodhounds is only part of the job. Bird said he and the agency’s two other field investigators are, in essence, crime scene investigators much like those on popular television shows.
“Our investigations are really deep, and there’s a science to them. We walk around, flag all the evidence, document everything with photos, conduct interviews and build a time-line for the fire. Our crime scene might be 3,000 to 5,000 acres in size, and we have to analyze all the information and get it down to what happened in the 2-by-2 foot area where the arson was committed.”
Investigations have become more in-depth because arsonists have become more sophisticated.
“People have Google, and they get on the Internet and learn how to conceal their crimes,” Bird said. “Everybody watches CSI now, so they’re thinking not only about committing crimes but also about how to conceal them. As they do that, our cases become more and more complex.”
Though wildfires occur statewide, Bird said the southern coalfields are still where the vast majority of arson-caused fires are set.
“The area west of Beckley and south of Interstate 64 is the hot zone,” he said. “For whatever reason, people in that area don’t seem to take wildfires seriously.
“In the northern part of the state, a forest fire is a big deal. People get really concerned. In the coalfields, people could have a fire practically in their back yards and not really worry about it. It’s almost like they’re accustomed to fires.”
In the past, many arson cases were the result of simple mischief-making. Bird said some of today’s cases have darker origins.
“We see people setting fires to cover up for timber theft, vehicle theft, copper theft and to clear land for marijuana growing,” he said. “We see fires set for revenge and simply for the sake of being mean.
“One thing people need to realize is that no matter what the motive, arson is a felony. It’s not something to be taken lightly. That’s why we pursue these cases so aggressively.”
As much as Bird and his colleagues would like to see a day in which the agency didn’t have to use bloodhounds, they realize that day might not ever come.
“We have to have [the bloodhounds,]” Bird said. “If we didn’t, there would be more fires. A lot more fires, in fact. As long as we have the dogs, [arsonists] will know we have the ability to catch them.”