Wildland Arson Rate Drops, Thanks to Increased Law Enforcement Effort

By Kirsten Delamarter

Sgt. Homer Pigman was used to responding to multiple arson-related calls a day in his 13-county district in southeastern Kentucky.

“We’d have two or three in a day’s time,” the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources conservation officer recalled.

But it was a period of concentrated fire activity — 19 fires within a span of a few weeks, all within Floyd County — that resulted in the first wildland arson arrest of the spring 2017 fire season made by Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, in partnership with the Kentucky Division of Forestry.

The Division of Forestry launched the partnership in 2016 to combat Kentucky’s wildfire arson rates, which were abnormally high compared to other states in the southern U.S., said Brandon Howard, fire management chief with the Division of Forestry. At the time, about 65 percent of wildfires in Kentucky were caused by arson, according to Division of Forestry figures, compared to 13 percent in Virginia and 31 percent in Tennessee, states that are similar to Kentucky in topography and overall fire situation.

Now heading into its fourth year, the partnership appears to have paid off. The 3-year average arson rate, which accounts for the years since increased law enforcement efforts began, has dropped, and now is at 55 percent.

“That’s directly correlated with our use of assistance from Fish and Wildlife,” Howard said. “It’s not just an anomaly.”

A Natural Partnership

Fall 2016 was one of Kentucky’s worst fire seasons in recent memory.

Blazes in southeastern Kentucky destroyed more than 50,000 acres of forest throughout September and October and, for the first time in 15 years, the office of the governor declared a state of emergency as the result of wildland fires. More than 500 firefighters and other professionals from a variety of agencies worked around the clock to prevent fires from posing a greater threat to public safety.

At the time, officials estimated that 76 percent of the fires burning across southeastern Kentucky were caused by arsonists. Investigation of these fires fell to the Division of Forestry, whose crews were first and foremost focused on fire suppression.

“It’s kind of hard when you’ve got a large fire raging and you’ve only got your personnel available,” Howard said. “We don’t have dedicated arson investigators in our division … and there’s only so much we could do in the prime time to investigate early in the fire when you can more easily find the point of origin.”

The Division of Forestry has approximately 130 full-time employees, most with primary fire suppression duties, but all contribute when wildfire conditions warrant. It also hires 200-300 seasonal employees who assist during Kentucky’s two dedicated forest fire seasons: the spring fire hazard season from February 15 through April 30 and the fall fire hazard season from October 1 through December 15. But during periods of high fire activity — as was the case in fall 2016 — the division calls upon conservation officers for law enforcement assistance.

“We are a law enforcement agency, but the Department of Fish and Wildlife can bolster our law enforcement footprint,” Howard said.

Personnel from the Kentucky Division of Forestry, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and Letcher County fire crews worked together to suppress and investigate a 700-acre forest fire in Harlan and Letcher counties. File photo.

Lt. Greg Watts of Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, who helped organize the partnership early on, said bringing the agencies together was “a natural fit” because conservation officers and foresters frequently work in the same areas.

The partnership truly took off in 2017, when the Division of Forestry received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service for wildfire mitigation projects. The Division of Forestry has continued to receive grant funding for this purpose every year since then.

The funds are used to reimburse Kentucky Fish and Wildlife for investigative services on the fire line and related duties, as well as costs associated with training, according to a memorandum of agreement between the two agencies.

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife has more than 100 conservation officers across the state, all of whom are qualified to investigate wildland arson. When the partnership began, officers received training in fire investigation and fire safety through the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. They also routinely hone their investigative skills during trainings through Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, as well as through the Department of Criminal Justice Training in Richmond, Ky.

Since the program started, Pigman has trained in arson investigation — such as how to examine the burn patterns on trees to determine which direction the fire was moving.

But much of his work in wildland arson cases still relies on tried-and-true law enforcement techniques, like canvassing neighborhoods and working with other law enforcement to piece together the puzzle.

Such was the case in the arson investigation Pigman worked in February 2017, after the rash of fires across Floyd County.

Pigman said the Floyd County Fire Department had seen a suspected arsonist fleeing the scenes of several fires. After interviewing a number of people close to the suspect, Pigman arrested Johnathan Shepherd, and he confessed to starting multiple fires. He was convicted of wanton endangerment.

“Their suspicions were right on,” Pigman said of the fire department’s early assistance. “There were no more fires in the David community (of Floyd County) after his arrest.”

Preventing Wildland Arson

The partnership has continued to be beneficial, even though the past several fire seasons have been tamer than fall 2016.

When the Division of Forestry feels there is a good chance of fire activity in a certain area — such as during periods of dry weather and high winds — the agency will “pre-position” resources, including conservation officers, to ensure all parties can respond quickly to an emergency.

Over the last decade, Kentucky has experienced an average of 1,028 wildfires a year, according to the most recent Division of Forestry data available.

If there isn’t an active arson case to investigate, conservation officers will conduct “active patrols” in areas the Division of Forestry has designated as “hotspots” for wildland arson. Officers will be highly visible in these areas, and when they talk with people in the area, they make it clear they are trying to prevent further arson.

“This allows the officers to not only prevent arsons but it also creates a network of contacts in the communities or areas,” Watts said, explaining that officers can then go back to these individuals for information during active investigations.

Watts said he knows the efforts have been effective because arson-related calls in southeastern Kentucky are becoming less frequent.

“It really and truly is the hard work of the field conservation officers, the local guy who goes out and is dedicated to trying to work this program,” Watts said. “And that’s why we’ve had success.”

Looking ahead, Howard said the hard work and collaboration of the two agencies will continue.

“Their officers enjoy it,” he said. “And it helps us out, too.”

To report a wildland fire arsonist, call the Target Arson Hotline number at 1-800-27-ARSON. To report a wildland fire, call your local division field office, fire department or 911. Read more about the Kentucky Division of Forestry here.

Learn more about the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources Law Enforcement Division here.

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