The wonder of the holidays is often found in the flicker of a candle or the crackle of an indoor fire. But for many children, such magic can be deadly when a burning curiosity becomes an obsession.
Fire officials estimate that about 1 million arson fires are set nationwide each year, with 50% of them ignited by children under 18 years old. Half of those are set by youngsters under 12.
"It's not at all abnormal to be interested in fire," says Los Angeles County Fire Capt. John Day, who for 20 years has counseled juvenile arsonists. "Most kids just don't think about the painful consequences."
Ten years ago, Day developed an arsonist counseling program that is still used today by the county Fire Department and stations around the nation. He now travels the country with six other inspectors, meeting and counseling between 60 and 100 children and their families each year.
A Taboo Subject
According to Day, the average fire setter is typically 5 to 9 years old and is inquisitive about fire because his parents have made it a taboo subject.
"Some parents are so overprotective that they send their kids out of the room every time they light the fireplace," Day said. "If something is taboo, people are going to go out of their way to find out about it."
Day said he has found that nearly 90% of trouble fire setters are boys, and several of them come from affluent homes, although young arsonists come from other backgrounds as well.
"The youngest child I identified as a fire setter was 18 months old," Day said. "A firefighter told me about this baby who started a fire with a cigarette lighter and seriously burned herself. Not only did she have tremendous motor coordination, but she also had a great curiosity about fire."
Make Pact With Child
Generally, concerned parents will call the fire department when they discover that their child has set a fire, Day said. After the call is made, he and his inspectors then visit the child and parents at their home and make a "no fire" agreement with the youth.
"We tell the kids that if they get curious and have an urge to light matches to call us or talk to their parents," Day said. "Parents have to take the time to show their kids constructive ways of handling fire, with supervision, of course."
But for many children, it is more than mere curiosity that urges them to experiment with a book of matches lying on a coffee table, or poke around in the fireplace, said Michael Geffen, an Upland psychologist who specializes in treating children who commit arson.
Many juveniles set fires as a way of dealing with deep-seated emotional problems, he said.
"The problem fire setter is sad, or depressed, or angry, or hurt," Geffen said. "It's a cry for help. There's something going on inside them and they are unable to talk about it."
"I'm treating a little girl right now who burned her hair off twice," said Geffen, who works out of Pomona Valley Horizon Hospital and has a private practice. "One 7-year-old boy set his stuffed animals on fire and threw them out the window. That's a powerful message."
Sometimes, however, the sad consequence of a child's emotional problem is the destruction of lives and property, he said.
Last summer, a 6-year-old Los Angeles boy set his home ablaze and killed four people.
"We are teaching kids to talk about their emotions," he said. "Some of these kids have never had the opportunity to talk about their emotions."
According to Geffen, junior fire starters are often troubled by domestic situations, such as divorce, sexual abuse, sibling rivalry or other family problems.
"Personally, I think most young fire setters won't grow up to be arsonists, but some will," Day commented. "We can stop the fire setting. But that's usually the result of a problem that we can't always solve."