He’s Blaze, the Arson Dog
September marked the first month of official duty for the newest member of the Alabama Forestry Commission’s Law Enforcement Division. Unlike his fellow investigators, this particular agent doesn’t wear a uniform, fill out paperwork or question witnesses. And he’s not yet two years old.
Specially selected by bloodhound breeders in South Carolina for the Alabama Forestry Commission, Blaze is a scent-tracking dog trained specifically for the job of trailing people by their unique scent.
"To a dog like Blaze, your scent is as unique as your fingerprint," said Chief Craig Hill of the Forestry Commission’s Law Enforcement Division.
"Blaze and his primary handler Investigator Donnie Parker have been through a year of very intensive training. If we can find one footprint at the site of a fire, Blaze can detect that person’s scent, and he’ll track as far as that scent will carry," Hill said.
And for Blaze, a person’s scent is easier to track than people might think.
"We’ve had him scent people from aluminum cans or other dropped items. He’s even followed the scent of a person who got in a vehicle and was driven down the road, and Blaze approached the vehicle and identified the scent he was after. People on bicycles, cars or ATVs are all possible for Blaze to locate," Hill explained.
Chief Hill went on to say arson dogs already have proven successful in other states.
"State Forester Linda Casey charged us with building a first-class Investigative Unit, capable of providing timely service to the timber industry and individual landowners, and part of that goal is to reduce the number of wild land arsons in the state," said Hill.
"We looked back at previous years, and in an average year there are 2,500 wildfires in Alabama, and an estimated 40 percent of those are intentionally-set wildfires. We looked carefully at what other states were doing and learned states like West Virginia and Virginia had been using arson dogs for 20 years. The physical evidence those dogs provided actually reduced arson incidents," explained Hill.
Such valuable help comes at a steep price, but Casey and Hill were determined to make sure Alabama had that tool available.
"A fully-trained dog could have cost 15 to 16 thousand dollars, and we still would have needed additional money for handler training, so we found a breeder who agreed to select a puppy that would suit our needs," Hill said.
And through private donations, Blaze was purchased and he and handler Donnie Parker have been extensively trained at no cost to Alabama taxpayers.
"Every bit of the money used for Blaze’s purchase, training, feed and veterinary care has all been donated, and we hope to continue to obtain private funds for his care," Hill added.
In addition to identifying suspected arsonists, Chief Hill said they also plan to make Blaze available for searching out non-criminal missing persons.
"When a child or an older person with dementia wanders off or becomes lost in the woods, Blaze can track that scent, too. He’s going to be a valuable tool for us and for the safety of others," Hill said.
But Blaze won’t just be working in the woods. His endearing demeanor and signature bloodhound visage make him an integral part of the Forestry Commission’s campaign to educate people about the dangers of wild land fires. As part of that effort, Blaze can be seen on promotional materials for the state’s arson hotline and in the outreach programs conducted in schools.
"That’s one of the things making Blaze such a great dog for us," said Investigator Parker.
"He can work hard out in the field all day and play on the couch when he’s done. Blaze loves kids and is a very positive way for us to remind people how dangerous wild fires are and what we can do to prevent them," Parker said.
A former wild land firefighter, Parker said when he applied for the job as investigator, he was thrilled when asked if he would be willing to work with a tracking dog.
"I’ve had and trained hunting dogs and always enjoyed that, so it seemed like a good fit for me," Parker said, adding that working with Blaze is not as easy a job as it might seem.
"It’s a 24-hour job and very demanding work. Blaze and I train at least three days a week, and we train under all different scenarios, including some night training and various other conditions. We’ve trained with correctional facilities, and we’re going to West Virginia in a few weeks for some additional training," said Parker.
"The National Police Bloodhound Association and other states using bloodhounds have been very helpful in Blaze’s training as well," Hill added.
But Parker said all the training in the world isn’t enough without the right kind of dog.
"Even when they are very young puppies, breeders start trying to determine which dogs will be candidates for this type of work. They have certain tests for the individual animal’s curiosity and determination, and they may not have but one or two dogs in a litter that will be good working dogs. The breeder hand-picked this dog specifically for us," Parker said as he rubbed his hand across Blaze’s chest, the pride and affection for the dog ringing out in every word.
"Blaze is a really valuable asset to us both in detecting efforts where he can identify suspects and as a mascot to raise public awareness and deter wildfires. He’s one more tool in finding culprits, and that’s one more piece of evidence we can put together to build cases to make Alabama safer," said Chief Hill.
Anyone with information about suspicious activity related to wildfires, timber theft or vandalism should call the state arson hotline at 1-800-222-2927. And anyone wishing to make contributions to Blaze’s care and training can contact the Alabama Forestry Commission at (334) 240-9300.
Kellie Henderson is a freelance writer from Troy.