Kentucky Success Story: Guarding the State's Resources
Kentucky partnership plays off organizational strengths to reduce arson occurrences
In 2014, the Kentucky Division of Forestry used bloodhounds to track arsonists through the woods in eastern Kentucky. In one case, the dogs tracked an arsonist because of the trail they left with their all-terrain vehicle. In 2016, the state’s wildfire officials had a different idea. They set loose bloodhounds on two feet, not four, to track arsonists.
The Division of Forestry, which spent much of their time chasing arsonists, created a partnership with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Law Enforcement Division to try and curb arson. It worked in a big way.
Arson fires accounted for 68 percent of wildfires in the state, on average, between 2014-2016. The investigators – sleuths on two feet – arrived on the scene at the start of the 2016 fall fire season and arsons dropped a remarkable 15 percent since the inception of the partnership. These are seasoned investigators and the data suggests the arsonists are pausing before lighting a match and leaving a trail.
“We would come up on a fire and we had to worry about getting out there and suppressing a fire, document where the fire is, this is what’s going on, and then come back and investigate,” said Brandon Howard, the Fire Management Chief for the Kentucky Division of Forestry. “Having the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife they could start immediately investigating the fires and start apprehending people. That started happening__ they started questioning people and finding suspects. Any investigation is better if you start early.”
“Word started getting around and we made sure, in working with the Department of Fish & Wildlife, that they were on site and people knew about it. People started realizing pretty quickly we mean business.”
The fire sleuths carry sidearms in Kentucky, an advantage over the Forestry Division, which carried hoses, rakes, and other fire suppression tools.
In a 10-year summary of wildfire causes in Kentucky from 2007-2016, 8,575 fires were caused by arson. The next greater cause of fires was debris burning at 2,890. Arson is certainly a significant issue, but now it is being dealt with by more fire detectives.
The aid from law enforcement happened just in time through a grant from the USDA Forest Service. Kentucky, like much of the southern U.S., had one of its worst fire seasons in 2016 because of extreme drought.
Kentucky has laws in place to discourage arson in forests. The penalties for violating KRS 149.380 include a fine of not less than $1,000, or more than $10,000, imprisonment for not more than five years, or both fine and imprisonment.
There are things citizens in the area of a fire can watch for if they suspect arson. Unfamiliar vehicles leaving the area of a fire, as well as arsonists returning to the scene. Many times the arsonists want to see the mayhem they have caused.
“Citizens can also be on the lookout for hunters, who start fires to run deer, or burn a patch of land and wait for the turkeys to come in,” Howard said. Sometimes, the arsonist will be standing in the crowd acting the part of the innocent bystander.
“People like to see the emergency agency roll into their area,” Howard said. “If they are not going to get caught maybe it’s a little action. It’s a crime. People don’t realize it.”
The partnership not only allows the forestry division and local authorities more resources to suppress fires, it allows more resources for initiatives that help curb wildfires, Howard said. More attention is being paid to prescribed fires and their benefits.
“During the fire season is the best time to have proper prescribed fire management, but if we spend a lot of time trying to suppress fires caused by arson it takes up time,” Howard said. “By lowering our arson rate it has allowed us more time to get into practicing prescribed fire management.”
There are areas of Kentucky where there have not been fires and the vegetation has grown thick. It is fuel for forest fires. It is an area that can be helped by prescribed fire.
“We’re trying to reduce those hazardous fuel loads for when those catastrophic times do come,” Howard said. “When the fires start they are not going to be that bad. We’re making a pathway for this to happen. It’s not just reducing fuel loads, there are some ecological benefits.”
Howard said Kentucky has not only ramped up its efforts in prescribed burns, the Division of Forestry is also educating the public on Firewise USA® practices.
“They should look at vegetation around their homes; if it dries out and it is particularly flammable,” Howard said. “They need to have green grass around their home. The gutters should not have leaves or pine needles. If you have a barn with a wood roof it doesn’t need to be right up against the woods. Make as much space as possible.
“A lot of times in Kentucky we’ll come up to a barn that’s used regularly and it is right up against the woods. We spend a lot of time trying to suppress that. The whole idea of mitigating these is to increase firefighter safety.”
Howard said the Kentucky Division of Forestry has people on staff who can advise the public of the proper way to mitigate these hazards.
While most of the serious, hard to handle wildfires are in the mountains, there is a threat from fires on flatter land, especially in the pasture lands. Kentucky has a significant economy in thoroughbred race horses.
“A grass fire is very deceptive,” Howard said. “You could have a breezy spring day, it could be middle of the day, and you decide to burn a brush pile and there is a lot of dead grass in that field. It doesn’t take a lot of wind on a dry day to push that fire, and grass fires have the ability to burn faster than woods fires. They are usually wind carried (light fuels). It’s something to watch out for with barns and horses. A grass fire can catch you off guard.”
But now it is the arsonists being caught off guard. The two-legged bloodhounds are on the trail.