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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New arson dog brings expertise to Spokane County fire investigations

Deputy Chief Jared Harms poses for a photo with K9 Chardonnay, a 2-year old yellow lab trained as an Accelerant Detection Canine, on Tuesday at Spokane County Fire District 4 in Deer Park.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

The newest employee of Spokane County Fire District 4 in north Spokane County has fur, four paws and loves to sniff out the scent of gasoline and other accelerants at fire scenes.

Chardonnay, a yellow Labrador, responded to her first suspicious fire on Easter Sunday. Her arrival means that Spokane County once again has an arson dog on call. The last one was Mako, who was pulled from helping firefighters in 2015.

Chardonnay’s purchase and training was funded by a scholarship from State Farm Insurance. Her handler, Deputy Chief/Fire Marshal Jared Harms, traveled to the East Coast earlier this year to complete an intensive training program.

Harms said the trainers interviewed him and then matched him with Chardonnay.

“She came out of the kennel, licked me in the face and gave me her paw,” he said. “I thought, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ ”

Chardonnay was already trained when he arrived, Harms said, and the training course was mostly to help them learn to work together.

“We had to bond,” he said. “I had to learn how to work her.”

Harms said he followed Mako’s career and had long been interested in working with a dog.

“I just developed a passion for investigations,” he said. “We’re a big dog family. I’ve got three other dogs at home.”

He entered the fire service as a volunteer at District 4 as a teenager after being convinced to give it a try. He then went to work as a firefighter with Stevens County Fire District 1 in 2013 and advanced to fire prevention officer before rejoining District 4 as a deputy chief in 2020. His work as fire marshal meant he would finally have the ability to work with a dog, Harms said.

Before taking the leap, however, Harms consulted with Mako’s handler, retired fire investigator Rick Freier. Freier talked to him about being on call 24/7 and being asked to attend many public events with Mako.

“Rick made sure he instilled in me that it was a lot of work,” he said.

Dog handlers are required to commit to at least five years of active service. And while having a dog is hard work, it was also a lot of fun, Freier told him.

“The five years, he said, will come and go in a heartbeat,” Harms said.

Chardonnay was originally bred to be a seeing eye dog, but failed the program, Harms said. While she is easygoing and friendly, she’s also prone to yanking on her leash.

“She will pull your shoulder out of your socket,” he said. “If there’s ignitable liquids, you’d better hang on, because she’s going.”

While at the fire station with Harms, Chardonnay is content to nap on the floor while he works. But when the leash snaps on and they head toward the engine bay, she gets excited.

“She does enjoy her work,” he said. “You can tell. She’s very proud of herself when she alerts. She’ll stare you down with a smile until she gets fed.”

Harms said that just because Chardonnay alerts to an accelerant, doesn’t mean a fire was arson. It’s her job to find accelerants, and the investigation has to determine if there’s a valid reason for it to be there. For example, she recently alerted to a snowblower simply because it had gas in it.

“She’s just a piece of the fire investigation puzzle,” he said. “She does not prove or disprove that an arson occurred.”

Chardonnay has already investigated nine fires, and Harms expects to get busier. The closest additional arson dogs are in Portland and Vancouver, B.C.

“We’ve already been to several other fires,” he said. “Word is starting to travel, because she’s the only dog in the state.”

There are only 104 certified arson dogs in the United States and Canada, Harms said. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also has an arson dog training program, but those 48 dogs are either used by ATF or by handlers who are commissioned law enforcement officers, as are some fire marshals.

Chardonnay quickly settled into Harms’ home and is the boss of the other dogs, he said. She goes with him everywhere, even to his daughter’s ballet recitals.

“It has definitely been a major life change,” he said. “The experience has been absolutely fantastic. I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in the fire service.”

Those interested in meeting Chardonnay can visit the demonstration day scheduled for Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Spokane County Fire District 9 Station 92 at 3801 E. Farwell Road. Chardonnay’s demonstration is scheduled for 10:25 a.m. The duo will be leaving shortly after the demonstration in order to make it to the next ballet recital on time.