MARYSVILLE — Harley Hunt climbed on top of his bunk bed and touched the barbecue lighter to the glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling. He wanted to make them shine.
In seconds, the plastic stars began to melt. They dripped onto the 4-year-old’s mattress, setting it on fire.
Alerted by the screech of the smoke alarm in Harley’s room, his mother grabbed the boy then beat out the flames with a blanket. No one was hurt.
"The thought of what could have happened is absolutely terrifying," said his mother, Sarah Hunt of Marysville. "We could have lost him. We could have lost our house. He could have been burned and scarred for life."
Hunt’s pediatrician advised her to call the Marysville Fire District. Firefighters there are expanding their efforts to reach children who’ve accidentally or deliberately set fires.
The district’s program educates kids who’ve lit fires out of curiosity and helps children with deeper problems get counseling before they harm someone, said Marysville Lt. Dave VanBeek, who teaches fire safety.
"Sometimes underlying problems that kids have get expressed in fire setting. Kids don’t really cry out for help in obvious ways," he said. "(But) fire setting is not necessarily a sign of a serious problem. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to call the fire district and bring their kid in for a visit."
VanBeek met with Harley several days after the Oct. 8 fire. The lieutenant asked the boy about what happened, using a set of questions designed to determine Harley’s interest in fire.
The evaluation, which asks questions such as how a child felt when he started the fire, also helps gauge whether a kid could need counseling.
"It’s just a tool to help parents know if it’s curiosity or something more serious," VanBeek said.
For Harley, it was easy to see that he didn’t understand the danger and simply wanted to see what the lighter could do after he took it from a drawer with a child-resistant lock, VanBeek said.
"I wanted to leave a lasting impression that what he’d done was really bad and really dangerous," his mother said. "Having Lt. VanBeek come out reinforced what I was saying."
Intervening when children are young is critical to preventing them from starting deadly fires and can stop kids from setting fires on purpose, said Marysville Fire District spokesman Nathan Trauernicht.
The district is working with Marysville police and hopes to work with the school district to reach children who need help, he said. The district also plans to do a better job tracking the number of child-set fires. The district helps at least one child a month who’s started a fire or shown an interest in playing with fire.
"We have serious concerns about the number of fires youth set in our area," Trauernicht said. "We’re really trying to get at the root of it."
Since 1995, 298 children throughout Snohomish County have received help through local juvenile fire-starter intervention programs, according to the Snohomish County Fire Marshal’s Office.
But the number of fires set by kids is widely underreported, said Lori Boren of the Fire Marshal’s Office. The office keeps a record of the first and the type of help provided to children, information that’s especially valuable when a child sets multiple fires.
Nationally, children are responsible for 25 percent of fires, most of which are accidentally set, according to the National Association of State Fire Marshals. Fires set by children and teens are more likely than any household disaster to result in death, the association reported.
About half of the people arrested for arson in the United States are younger than 18, according to a 1999 association study of juvenile fire starters. Firefighters say almost all adult arsonists have a history of starting fires at a younger age.
In Marysville, fires set by children in the past few years have caused minor damage, Trauernicht said. Last year, at least three small fires were set at Marysville Junior High School. In October 2002, officials evacuated the school because of a fire set in a trash can in the boy’s restroom.
Trauernicht recalled a fire set by kids last year at the Cedarcrest Golf Course that came extremely close to a housing development.
"Any fire has the potential to become a large fire and a fatal fire," Trauernicht said.
In south Snohomish County, Snohomish County Fire District 1 firefighters have worked since the 1980s to aid kids who start fires, said district public education coordinator Kim Schroeder.
"We can’t measure how many fires didn’t happen or if we stopped a kid from picking up a lighter, but our feedback from parents and kids involved has been very good," she said.
Many parents don’t know that help is available through their local fire departments, she said. The Snohomish County Fire Prevention Officers Association also has funds available to pay for counseling, if needed.
"Parents feel so unarmed to deal with this. Just being able to talk to someone at the fire district is reassuring," Schroeder said. "Those that do address it are good parents. People who think that it will go away really don’t recognize the potential for injuries and damage."
Almost all children who’ve started fires have had lighters and matches easily available to them, Schroeder said. She urged parents to know where those items are in their home and keep them away from children.
After meeting with a firefighter, the district often asks kids to do something, such as make a poster, write a poem or draw a picture to show that they understand the danger of fire.
"We don’t want kids to think that fire is bad," Schroeder said. "We just want to make sure that they know it’s a tool to be used by parents and it’s not for kids to play with."
Reporter Katherine Schiffner: 425-339-3436 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, contact your local fire department or call the Snohomish County Fire Marshal’s Office at 425-388-3557. In Marysville call the Marysville Fire District at 360-659-2777.
Sources: Marysville Fire District and the Washington Insurance Council.