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Behind many fires are young children

The Baltimore Sun

When firefighters discovered the source of the smoke minutes after entering the Carroll County apartment, they found foam pillows and clothing burning in a bedroom.

The flames might have taken 15 seconds to extinguish, the smoke, 15 minutes to clear. But within hours, fire officials had zeroed in on what had caused the blaze while the apartment's residents were away: a 9-year-old boy.

The Mount Airy child is not the youngest caught intentionally setting a fire, fire officials and psychologists say, nor are juvenile fire-setters rare.

"You're probably likely to see [them] all the way from some preschool to high school," said David J. Kolko, a professor of psychiatry, psychology and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, referring to young fire-starters. Kolko has studied and treated such youths for almost 30 years.

Nationally, more than 50 percent of those arrested for arson are under age 18 and about 30 percent are under 15, according to the FBI's 2005 uniform crime report and Timothy Patrick O'Dowd of the U.S. Fire Administration.

In Baltimore, about 65 percent of fires are set by youths, said Derrick Lamont Ready, a juvenile fire-setter intervention coordinator. Professionals, such as O'Dowd and Ready, have long sought to combat the problem of young fire-setters with safety and intervention programs.

A 2005 report from the National Fire Protection Association shows that about 13,900 "child-playing structure fires" were documented in 2002, resulting in about $340 million in damage.

The Mount Airy fire last Friday afternoon resulted in an estimated $500 in damage, according to the Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office. The child involved, whose name has not been disclosed, faces charges of first-degree arson and malicious burning.

Maryland law considers an individual age 7 or older capable of understanding the criminality of an act, W. Faron Taylor, deputy state fire marshal, said. "We were able to determine that this youth understood the action and ignited the blaze."

The Mount Airy case is one of several types of child-started fires.

"A lot of kids' fires, and a lot of near-fires, are not intentional - they're just playing with matches or playing with lighters, and then something goes awry," Kolko said.

Depending on the study, Kolko said, the average age of juvenile fire-setters is around 8 or 9 - although Kolko has seen children as young as 3 who might have played with matches or set a fire.

Fire officials are familiar with the scenarios, which tend to recur, they say. Ready recalled that several years ago a 5-year-old in Northeast Baltimore started a fire that ended up killing his 2-month-old sister. The boy had been playing with matches.

A few months ago, said Tim Warner, a deputy state fire marshal, a couple of pre-teens in Carroll County set fire to a barn.

And Don Adams, an instructor with the National Fire Academy for the Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Program, said he remembered interviewing an 8-year-old boy who started a fire in his mother's closet. The child said that was where his mother's boyfriend kept a video camera used to record tapes of a sexual nature of the boy and his sister.

The motives for such behavior vary, but some broad classifications are used, said Michael Grassmyer, program manager for a Pennsylvania treatment center for juvenile fire-starters:

Accidental or curious - usually young children who don't fully understand fire.

Crisis or cry for help - youths who use fire to call attention to themselves or resolve issues such as sexual or physical abuse.

Delinquent - typically use fire to destroy things.

Pathological - revenge fire-setters, thrill-seekers, people fascinated with fire or turning to it as a coping mechanism.

"The most common is a mix of either those young kids who are really curious and don't know much about fire, or other kids who do know about fire and they like it," Kolko said.

Adams said curiosity fire-starters represent about 67 percent, crisis about 20, delinquent about 12 and "psycho-pathological" about 1 percent. While curiosity cases typically pose little risk of the children repeating their behavior, without proper intervention, crisis and delinquent represent a definite risk and pathological an extreme one.

Culture is also a factor, Taylor said. "Just by our actions ... we inculcate into folks that it is something that we can control," he said.

He pointed to blowing out candles on a birthday cake as an example: "One of our earliest memories [is] where we're being taught that this is something we have power over."

Control can drive crisis fire-starters as well, Adams said. Because they lack control of something in their lives, he said, they turn to fire, something they perceive as easily controlled based on their early experience of blowing out birthday candles.

"Kids, they don't have good coping skills. So they're looking for these outlets," Adams said. "They have learned that they can control fire, when in reality, fire doubles in size every 30 seconds."

Beyond intervention and treatment, simply helping people realize fire's "devastating nature" could further foster an understanding "of not just what not to do but what to do with fire," Taylor said. "There is no quick, easy, one-step solution to this."

Part of the solution has emerged in services for treating juvenile fire-setters. In the city, an intervention program works with referred youths under 17, Ready said.

For successful completion, participants must write at least six essays, perform a minimum of 100 hours of community service and visit a firehouse - in their neighborhood, if possible - where they go through a questionnaire with a firefighter. High school students are also asked to create fire safety plans for their homes and check their smoke alarms, among other requirements, Ready said.

Young male fire-starters can be court-ordered to the Abraxas Youth Center in South Mountain, Pa., where a 36-bed, long-term care facility treats youth ages 12 to 18, currently from about five states, Grassmyer said.

Marylanders represent the second-highest number of occupants, he said.

The center, which also has a 24-bed, open residential unit for 11- to 16-year-olds, tends to receive more crisis fire-setters than curiosity ones, Grassmyer said. Curiosity fire-starters are often dealt with in after-school programs, he said.

Their clients' behavior has caused damage ranging from $25 to $1 million, Grassmyer said, with an average of about $40,000.

"What we've found thus far is that we've had some pretty good successes in treating this population," Grassmyer said, as the center tracks the children quarterly for two years after they have been discharged.

Adams said that for a juvenile fire-setter program to be successful, "it needs to have a joint venture" including people from mental health groups, social services, police and the juvenile justice system, along with the fire departments that often lead them.

"The fire is not the problem," Adams said. "Fire-setting is an outward expression of an inward emotion, or problem, that these kids are having."

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