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Washington’s newest memorial honors dogs who sniff out suspicious fires

Colorado sculptor Austin Weishel, with “Ashes to Answers,” his statue honoring arson investigation dogs. The monument is at Fifth and F streets NW in Washington. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Sculptor Austin Weishel’s toughest critics have four legs, not two. And unlike most human critics, they can express their disapproval by lifting one of them.

Austin is a Colorado artist whose latest work was dedicated last week at Fifth and F streets NW. It depicts an arson dog — that’s a dog that helps detect arson fires, not one that sets them — gazing longingly up at his handler.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Before it was unveiled here, the National Fire Dog Monument went on a cross-country tour, going on display in eight cities over 15 days. The life-size bronze figures were on a wooden base. When the tour was done, Austin noticed that the wood was criss-crossed with odd striations: scratches left by dog claws when owners pulled back their curious canines.

He considers it a success that dogs go up to sniff the bronze dog in his sculpture. His is certainly a hyper-realistic style.

“I want to put in every single stitch, make the eagle on the helmet and the badges on the collar as realistic as possible but still have artistic license,” said Austin, 24.

Colorado sculptor Austin Weishel, with “Ashes to Answers,” his statue honoring arson investigation dogs. The monument is at Fifth and F streets NW in Washington. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

What’s remarkable is that Austin isn’t always capable of such detail in other parts of his life. He’s dyslexic and struggled in school.

“Writing, I can do it,” he said. “It just takes me a little more time. I lack something. But I gained something greater, the ability to see the world in a three-dimensional form.”

At 16 he visited a bronze foundry near his grandparents’ Arizona home. The man who ran the foundry gave him a lump of clay and told Austin that if he shaped it into something, he’d cast it in bronze.

A year later, Austin returned with what he’d fashioned from the clay: a tiny firefighter standing between New York’s twin towers. A career in art was born. It coincided with Austin’s joining a volunteer fire department.

“I was one of those kids they thought would be lost,” he told me as we stood by his sculpture last week. “With dyslexia it had been a struggle. Firefighting turned me around.”

Austin is a trained EMT and a volunteer firefighter with Windsor-Severance Fire Rescue in Colorado. (He does a shift about once a week.)

The arson dog monument — titled “Ashes to Answers” — is catty-corner from the National Building Museum. Appropriately, it’s also behind the D.C. fire department’s Engine Company 2.

There are only 81 arson dog teams in the United States and Canada. (Washington’s fire department has two.) State Farm sponsors the program that trains them.

After a fire has been extinguished, the dogs visit the scene with their handlers. With their super-sensitive noses, the K-9s can detect various kinds of accelerants. When they find a smell they’ve been trained to recognize, they give a signal: sitting and pointing with their nose to where the scent is strongest. A sample is collected and examined in the lab.

“It’s just as important to not find something as to find something,” said Jerry Means, an agent with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Jerry was the prime force pushing for the monument. His first arson dog was Erin, who retired in 2007.

“She was getting old and gray in the face,” Jerry said. “I was so inspired by her, I thought there’s got to be a way to honor these dogs and validate them.”

Erin passed away in 2010. Jerry currently works with an 8-year-old Lab named Sadie.

“She does a fire every other day,” he told me.

Sadie attended the dedication Oct. 23 but was back at the hotel when I visited the memorial Friday — “watching Animal Planet,” said Jerry.

The sculpture is in place, but the memorial isn’t completely finished. Said Jerry: “Phase Two is to put a bronze fire hydrant with water coming out of it that goes to a dish, so dogs walking by can have a place to chill out.”

Portrait of a young artist

At 24, Austin must be one of the youngest sculptors to receive such a high-profile commission in Washington. I think only Vinnie Ream has him beat — barely. She was 18 when Congress asked her to sculpt Abraham Lincoln and 23 when her full-size marble statue was unveiled in 1871.

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