What You Need to Know About Juvenile Firesetting

Take a look around your house. As a parent, could you say - without reservation - that your home is safe and hazard-free? Check again. Any matchbooks or cigarette lighters on the kitchen counter? How about decorative candles? Do they line the mantel over the fireplace, embellish the coffee table or add a tranquil glow to your evening bath? What about th ose trick birthday candles – the fun kind you can’t blow out no matter how hard you try? Are they stored deep in the pantry along with the cake mix or in a kitchen drawer, in easy reach of a curious, four-foot-tall preschooler?

We hear about the tragedies that befall families who leave loaded guns in plain sight. We take care to install safety gates at the foot of staircases and pool alarms to guard against accidental drowning. Some of us have set parental controls on home computers to keep pedophiles from communicating with our kids. But when thoughts turn to fire prevention many parents think that by installing a smoke alarm in the home, they have done the job of safeguarding their family. Meanwhile, the real danger may lie in the hands of the youngest member of the household who needs only to reach for a nearby cigarette lighter, carry it to his room and – flick, flick, flick – until it ignites, setting his bedding ablaze while the rest of the family sleeps.

The Grim Facts

Juvenile firesetting is a leading cause of arson nationwide, according to a 2001 study by the National Association of State Fire Marshals. Children account for more than 50 percent of those arrested for this crime. In 1997, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that 6.3 percent of those involved in arson activity were under the age of 10. Another 37.5 percent comprised kids under the age of 15. These numbers may be conservative, officials say, because many incidences, in which damage is minimal and no one is harmed, go unreported by families who think it is just child’s play. In 1998, “child-playing” caused more than 67,000 fires across the United States, reports the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Nearly 300 people died in those fires and close to 2,000 were injured.

New York's Suffolk County has already documented eight fatalities due to home fires, within the first two months of 2003, reports John Grauer, a detective with the Suffolk County Police Arson Squad and Co-Chairman of Suffolk’s Juvenile Firesetter Intervention and Treatment Program. Nassau’s firefighters had their hands full as well. On Jan. 23, they battled two separate, after-school blazes. The first involved a 14-year-old youth who was reportedly upset over a poor test grade. He set his school papers on fire and tossed them out the window of an upstairs room. While smoke rose from the ground, flames shot out of the second-floor window. The home was ravaged with smoke, water and fire damage. The boy was arrested and charged as a juvenile with fourth-degree arson.

A short time later, an angry 10-year-old, held a cigarette lighter to the wall in a bedroom after an argument with an older sibling. A bed caught fire and flames quickly fanned out through the family’s one-story home. He too, was arrested and charged as a juvenile with second-degree arson.

Intervention to the Rescue

What becomes of kids like these? Are they punished, counseled or left to their own devices? Fortunately, “There’s a national push on this issue,” says Richard Barlette, arson bureau chief of the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control. At a workshop held in New York in September 2002, four states – New York, Kansas, Illinois and Alaska – were asked to set up model firesetter intervention programs, explains Barlette. “Children are attracted to fire.” Lighted candles hold a particular fascination for some, he notes. “Birthdays, festivities – kids emulate parents. At various points they may play with matches on their own.” Some kids are just curious. They experiment and then forget it, Barlette explains. “Others have an attraction to this. If it’s not stopped it can become secondary, ingrained. They may use fire as a weapon.”

One of the most successful intervention programs in the nation was begun in the city of Rochester, N.Y., where a study conducted by Fireproof Children Company, documented fires set by children during the period beginning January 1985 and ending December 1993. “More fires were started by 4-year-olds than any other age group and over 50 percent of the fires were started by children ages 4 to 9.” Rochester’s program is presently being replicated across New York state.

A Community Effort

The course of action depends on the type of firesetter the child is found to be. In the 2001 study conducted by the National Association of State Fire Marshals, two types of firesetters were identified:

• Non-pathological Firesetter – Also known as the “curiosity” type, these are children who range in age from 5 to 10. They don’t understand the consequences of their actions. 

• Pathological Firesetter – May include children of all ages who intentionally set fires for various reasons. These children are more inclined to behave aggressively if intervention is not recommended.

“For curious kids, the intervention could be education,” says Fischler. “We take kids through a fire scenario at our training academy. They view pictures of the consequences of fires. We show them props – melted phones and TV sets.” Fischler says this approach, labeled by some critics as a “tough love” program, is usually all that’s needed to stop kids from setting another fire. On the other hand, “Kids that enter the program through law enforcement – intentional firesetters – we look at the “whys”? Are there problems within the family? Does the child have a mental health problem?” Fischler emphasizes, “The idea is not to punish the child. There could be a deep-rooted problem.” If so, counseling would be coordinated through the intervention program.  

All Types of Families

“It’s not racial, it doesn’t matter what socio-economic background the child comes from,” says Detective Grauer. He was unable to offer accurate statistics for the county because he says, “Another problem is a lack of reporting [fires set by juveniles].”

Arson Bureau Chief, Richard Barlette has seen his share of property damage, injuries and death caused by who come from families in crisis as well as those from stable settings. He recalls two disturbing situations involving preschoolers:

• “This one child was the youngest of four children. It was a single parenting situation – a mom in crisis, with poor supervision skills and no income. The mom had a tough time coping,” Barlette explains. Her children began acting out, bullying and fighting on the streets. “The 3-1/2-year-old started threatening the mother – setting fires in the house with matches.”

• “About five years ago, a mom innocently put on a children’s video for the kids to watch while she showered. It was a holiday.” A happy day, says Barlette, until the 3-1/2-year-old decided to imitate a character in the movie who used matches to launch his toy rockets and torture his toys. “He finds mom’s lighter – she was a smoker – and the kid starts a fire. His brother dies in the fire. It can happen in the best of families,” Barlette concludes.

Why Do They Do it?

Explanations vary, according to Marlene Gralnick, program coordinator for Suffolk’s Juvenile Firesetter Intervention and Treatment Program. She looks at the developmental history of the child and family functioning. Her conclusions:

• A child could start lighting matches because of troubles at home. “If he witnesses chronic conflict among his parents – yelling, fighting, divorce, domestic violence. Matches appear and it happens.”

• It could happen to a child who is not the ringleader of the firesetting event but he can’t get out of the way, so he gets involved with the crime. “One of the components of our program is helping kids to have the skills to say ‘no’ We practice assertiveness skills.”

• “3- and 4-year-olds are curious. Parents need to safeguard the house from curious toddlers and preschoolers. These children are in need of good public fire safety education.” Gralnick suggests that parents call their local fire marshal.

• Some kids set fires because they want to be a hero.

Once is Enough

Experts agree that the first time a child sets a fire, intentional or not, the parents should seek help. David Fischler says, “Even if it occurs once, don’t ignore it. Bring the child to professionals. The longer it goes untreated the worse it will get. They can cause serious injury or death. Get them into a program. It’s so simple. It could be as short as two interventions.”

The National Association of State Fire Marshals says mental health treatment for the young firesetter and his family is critical. And better communication between mental health professionals, fire officials and police will lead to further awareness. Marlene Gralnick sums up the intervention efforts in Suffolk as one of “community spiritedness.”


Government Agencies

United States Fire Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Offers information on the juvenile firesetter and advice for parents and educators.

On the Web

SOS FIRES: Youth Intervention Programs This is a Juvenile Firesetting Intervention Resource Site. Go to the Parent/Teacher Resource Center to learn about firesetting behavior and find answers to frequently asked questions on this subject.


National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 800-344-3555 – Offers statistics and reports on fire-related injuries and deaths, public education and articles of interest to professionals. Sparky the Fire Dog® fun page for children with fire safety activities, and a Home Fire Safety Checklist for parents. Learn Not To Burn® educational materials geared to kids in preschool through grade eight may be purchased online or by telephone.