Psychologists try to understand why young children start fires


SEATTLE -- In 34 years as a firefighter and investigator, Jim Dixon has seen how cold fire can be, how uncaring in its consumption of homes, bodies and life's possessions.

But little chills him more than the nonchalance of a child who has just caused it all.

"It makes your blood curdle," said Mr. Dixon, a county deputy fire marshal, recalling an interview with a 5-year-old fire-setter who had destroyed his own home.

"He isn't crying, he isn't afraid. I say, 'What's it going to take to make you stop doing this?' And he says, 'Well, I guess you'll have to take my matches and lighter.'"

Firefighters have struggled for years to reach such children before they cause devastation. But few counselors or psychologists specialize in youngsters fascinated with fire.

A Seattle-area Juvenile Firesetters program, to study why younger children start fires and how to treat them, has begun to shed some light

The pilot project allows fire departments throughout King County to refer children 2 to 11 years old with a fascination with fire to a team of psychologists for four free visits.

In exchange, the psychologists meet each month to compare notes on patterns they've seen. Gradually, they are assembling a data base of information about young fire-setters.

The 55 children counseled since the program began have ranged from merely curious to chronically disturbed children.

They include a 4-year-old who ignited papers on his bedroom carpet, a 10-year-old who ignited a Dumpster and a 7-year-old who burned the mattress of his mother's bed. One of the youngest, a 3-year-old girl, set fire to a chair in February and the bedroom drapes in May.

Among the psychologists' observations so far:

* Unlike the child Mr. Dixon recalled, many were sorry about the fires. The psychologists determined that 69 percent of the TTC children did not intend to harm anyone. Only one child had a clear intent to harm.

* Nearly all -- 94 percent -- were boys.

* Sixty-five percent of those treated had set more than two fires before the one that led them to the program.

* Most of the children's parents, 76 percent, were suffering some kind of personal distress that had put a strain on the family.

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