The stages of juvenile fire-setting

  • By Rikki King
  • Wednesday, August 31, 2011 8:00am
  • Local News

My research into juvenile fire-setting for Monday’s story turned up an interesting tidbit that didn’t make the paper.

Most kids who play with fire fall into one of four classifications, said Kim Schroeder, a fire and life safety expert at Snohomish County Fire District 1. Each type involves different age groups, kinds of fire and underlying reasons for the behavior. Each type also requires a unique approach from officials.

The first stage is curiosity. The kids are young, even toddlers, and get ahold of matches or lighters. They don’t know what happens when they light something, Schroeder said.

The second stage is crisis fire-setting. The kids are usually 5 to 10. Often, something negative has happened in their life, and they’re unhappy but unable to express themselves, Schroeder said. The negative event doesn’t have to be something obvious, like a divorce or death.

“Whatever it is, it’s big to them, and they don’t feel like they’re being heard,” she said. “So they light fires because it empowers them.”

The third stage is delinquency. The kids know what’s going to happen, but they don’t worry about the consequences, she said. They want to destroy something for the sake of destroying it. They’re usually 10 to 17. They tend to act in groups.

The final stage is pathological and often is accompanied by a history of emotional or psychiatric problems. These kids get a thrill or emotional release from setting a fire. They usually want to watch the fire as it’s fought, and their behavior quickly escalates.

“The little fires no longer satisfy their need for that fix,” Schroeder said.

In the last stage, fires are ritualistic. The kid denies involvement, but they’re also protective and possessive of their fires.

Most of the time, the best thing is to deal with the problem right away, she said. Children have to learn that fire is a necessary tool for adults, not a plaything.

If you know a child that may be displaying signs of fire-setting behavior, contact your local fire department. If they don’t have an intervention program, they should be able to refer you to a nearby department that does.

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