Young Brier man shares his painful lesson with others

BRIER — Dennis McVay doesn’t hesitate to pull up his right pants leg.

The Brier man, 22, is used to showing people. A few inches up, scar tissue rings the shin. It marks where his sock stopped the fire.

Above the ring, his skin is slick, mottled with faint yellow and purple threads.

McVay was severely burned on June 6, 2002. He, his brother and some friends were playing with gasoline around a fire.

McVay kicked a ball doused in gas. Moments later, his pants leg ignited.

He spent five days in the burn unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. It was anot

her six months before he could run.

His family was later approached by Snohomish County Fire District 1. District officials asked if the McVays would share their experiences with others. The family spent a few months talking to schools and groups of at-risk youth. It became part of their healing process.

They also went through Fire Stoppers, an intervention program for children and teens who show signs of fire-setting behavior. Several Snohomish County fire districts offer variations of the program. Kids are referred from parents, neighbors, schools and courts.

This time of year, summer camps and vacations are ending. The school year is approaching, parents are working and kids are bored.

Around the county, small fires break out. Some are in brush, others in trash cans, homes or businesses. Fire District 1 now is warning neighbors about a series of arsons east of Lynnwood.

Juvenile fires pick up whenever school’s out, said Mike Makela, an investigator with the Snohomish County Fire Marshal’s Office.

Teens often target parks, including portable toilets, ball fields and sheds. The worst times are when fireworks are available — around the Fourth of July and New Year’s.

Makela estimates that up to two-thirds of arsons in unincorporated Snohomish County are the work of juveniles. Nationally, kids account for about half of all arson arrests, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Parents have to take signs of fire-setting seriously, said Kim Schroeder, a fire and life-safety expert at Fire District 1.

Children who set fires see two outcomes: consequences or no consequences, she said. If they don’t get caught or the problem is not addressed, they are likely to continue. As they get more comfortable, their fires escalate in size and complexity.

When families come to Fire Stoppers, it’s not to be punished or reprimanded, Schroeder said. The program is about education, prevention and awareness. If there are underlying issues, program coordinators can help families access appropriate resources.

Snohomish County Fire District 8 in Lake Stevens also offers an intervention program.

Crews there know firsthand how arsons can hurt communities, district educator Alison Caton said. Aside from the property damage, they strain emotional ties between neighbors.

“We educate the whole family on what fire-setting is, what the consequences are,” she said. “We’re really there to advocate for the child.”

A key lesson is teaching families that fire is a tool for adults — not a toy, she said. Sometimes, parents need to learn fire safety skills, too.

Anytime county fire investigators catch a young person showing signs of fire-setting, they try to get them into an intervention program close to home, Makela said.

Sometimes, investigators can work with juvenile probation programs to keep the kids out of criminal courts.

McVay lost a summer of his life to burns.

For months, his wounds required painful daily cleaning. He compared it to ripping off a scab, but on a larger scale. He had to closely monitor his compression sock. Then a growing boy, his skin kept trying to mesh into it.

“A burn isn’t like anything else,” he said. “It’s not like a broken bone. It’s not, like, crack, done.”

He shared his pain with the children he spoke to. He wanted them to see how playing with fire had impacted someone like them.

The support from his family got him through that summer, he said. His mother stayed with him at Harborview the entire time.

The experience taught him caution and respect for fire, he said. Nowadays, he spends his free time competing in motorcycle hill climbs, snowmobiling and enjoying water sports.

When he goes camping, and his buddies mess around with the fire, he walks away.

He’s already been there.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

Fire safety tips for children

•Store matches and lighters up high, out of children’s reach and sight.

Never use lighters or matches as a source of amusement for children. They might copy you.

If your child has expressed an interest in using matches or lighters or has been playing with fire, calmly but firmly explain that matches and lighters are tools for adults.

Use only lighters designed with child-resistant features and store them out of reach.

Teach children to tell an adult immediately if they see matches or lighters where children can get them.

Never leave matches or lighters in a bedroom or any place where children may go without supervision.

$PHOTOCREDIT_ON$Source: Snohomish County Fire District 1$PHOTOCREDIT_OFF$

Get help

If you know a child that is showing signs of fire-setting behavior, contact your local fire department.

Report arson

Call the tip line at 800-55-ARSON.

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