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Fire Stoppers - Youth Firesetting Intervention Program

If...Your child has played with fire
If...Your child has deliberately set a fire
If...You are unsure of how to teach your child about fire safety
Call the Renton Fire & Emergency Services Department for help! (425) 430-7000

Motivations for Youth Firesetting

Children play with fire for a variety of reasons. By understanding the motivation for the firesetting behavior you can better determine what that child needs in order to make it stop.  There are five basic classifications: curiosity/experimentation (most common), reactionary, delinquent, strategic and pathological firesetting.

Curiosity/Experimentation

About 70 percent of children who play with fire are in this group. They are typically younger in age and are curious about fire. The opportunity is there because the child has access to fire tools and is not supervised at the time of the incident. He or she decides to "see what fire will do." They usually do not think about or understand the danger of their actions.  For example, Michael, age six, finds his parent's lighter on the table. He is feeling kind of bored, so he decides to light some papers and sticks on fire. His home life is stable and there have not been any recent stresses. He seems sorry for what he did.

Reactionary

If children are upset about something and not good at expressing themselves, they may use fire as a way to let grown-ups know they need help. Their firesetting is in reaction to a problem, such as a new baby in the family, divorce, moving and problems at school.  For example, a Mom and step-dad are fighting loudly. Amy, age 11, is scared and wants them to stop. She does not know how to communicate how she feels, so she takes a lighter into her bedroom and sets her bedding on fire. When the parents notice this new emergency, they stop fighting. Imagine what is likely to happen the next time the parents fight, if nothing changes?

Delinquent Behavior

Sometimes kids will light a fire as a prank or dare. Sometimes it is to cover up another crime. Most of the kids in this group, typically adolescent, do not realize they are breaking the law and could go to jail. They know what they are doing is wrong, but they may not understand the consequence of fire or potential liability to them and their family.  For example, Brad, age 14, is dared by other kids to set fire to the toilet paper in the school bathroom.  Brad wants his friends to like him. Even though he knows it is wrong, he does it anyway.

Strategic Firesetting

In some cases, children will escalate to deliberate acts of firesetting, with no regard for life or property (including their own life). They know what they are doing is wrong, and they understand the consequences. They may use fire for retaliation, as part of a group initiation, or to cover up a major crime.

Pathological Firesetting

This type of firesetting is rare, and may be connected to a mental disorder or problem. Pathological firesetting may occur for obscure reasons, not easily understood by those other than mental health professionals.

Myths about Youth Firesetting

Myth: It is normal for children to play with fire.
Fact: While curiosity about fire is common, use without a parent's approval or knowledge is dangerous to the child and anyone around them.

Myth: If you burn a child's hand, they will stop.
Fact: Burns only create fears and scars. The reason behind the fire use must be discovered and addressed.

Myth: If you take a child to the burn unit to see burn victims, they will stop playing with fire.
Fact: Going to the burn unit only instills fear, and does not teach the child anything about fire and fire safety. More importantly, we need to be sensitive to burn survivors who are trying to recover (emotionally and physically) from their burns and we should not put them on display.

Myth: Put a child in the back of a police car or have a firefighter talk sternly to them and they will be so scared they will not set a fire again.
Fact: A police officer will put a child in the back of their patrol car only if they have the legal authority, and if it is appropriate to do so. Scare tactics do not get to the root of the problem and these kids typically continue to set fires.

Myth: It is a phase the child will grow out of.
Fact: It is not a phase. It is a dangerous behavior. You cannot afford to wait for fire behavior to change. It only takes one match to cause serious injury or death.

Myth: Some children are obsessed with fire.
Fact: In reality, very few children are obsessed or would be considered pyromaniacs. There is almost always a reason behind the behavior.

For questions, additional information, or educational materials on youth fire safety, please contact the Renton Fire and  Emergency Services Department at 425.430.7000.