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Firesetting and Youth

When Your Teen is in Trouble with the Law

Working with Youth and Their Families

Find out if your teen is at-risk and needs your help and intervention



Directory of Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Programs


Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Program of the Office of the Oregon State Fire Marshall


SOS Fires: Youth Intervention Programs

The mission of this non-profit organization is to prevent youth fire tragedy through education, intervention, and mental health support.  This is an excellent site with helpful information for professionals who work with youth firesetters, as well as for parents and teachers.




Abuse History and Juvenile Firesetting: A Research Report (pdf)


ADD and Firesetting: The Connection


Characteristics of Youth Who Have Caused School-Associated Violent Deaths


Children and Fires (pdf)


Conduct Disorder ~ Children or adolescents with conduct disorder may exhibit some of the following behaviors: aggression to people and animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness, lying, stealing, and serious violation of rules.


Dyess case highlights sexual abuse


Female Firesetters (pdf)


Fire Safety Fact Sheets for Teachers and Parents


Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Handbook ~ Online manual from the Miller Safety Center.


Juvenile Firesetter Manual ~ From the British Columbia Office of the Fire Commissioner.


Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Resources


Juvenile Firesetter Resource Guide ~ Information and resources from The Idea Bank.


Juvenile Firesetting ~ Juvenile firesetting stems from the most obvious possible cause -- a childhood environment filled with multiple and overwhelmingly negative factors.


Juvenile Firesetting Interventions: What Works for Children and Families? ~ A brief visit to the fire house with a ride on a truck or a brief "lecture" from a local fire Chief may not be enough for a youngster with a history of impulsivity, depression and/or family conflict.


Juvenile Firesetting: A Research Overview (pdf)


Juvenile Firesetting Research Project 2000 ~ SOS FIRES teamed up with the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies (ICHS) at the University of Alaska Anchorage to investigate the behavior of child firesetting/juvenile arson.


Personality Disorders


Psychiatric Illness Associated with Criminality ~ Many psychiatric illnesses (e.g., pyromania) are characterized by symptoms that make individuals prone to behaviors that can lead to criminal charges. Such symptoms include impaired judgment, lack of impulse control, suspiciousness, disinhibition, paranoia, inability to trust others, delusions, hallucinations, hyperactivity, irritability, inability to concentrate, and impairment in ability to communicate or engage in social interaction.


Putting Out the Fire (pdf) ~ The story of a family whose house was destroyed in a random act of arson by two teenage boys.


School Fires (pdf) ~ The greatest percentage of school fires occurs in middle- and high-schools.


Society's Influence on Juvenile Firesetting ~ As familiarity and the desensitizing effects of the media, societal rituals, and ignorance fuel the apathy for fire safety, the cycle of apathy gains momentum with each passing generation.


A Spark of Help for Kids Who Start Fires ~ Teaching a boy who's once started a fire how to control his anger, solve his problems and what fire safety means makes him less likely to light more fires, contends one of the leading experts on the subject.


Teen Violence


Violence at Home Linked to Firesetting and Animal Cruelty ~ Children from homes with violent marriages were more than twice as likely to set fires than those residing in nonviolent homes. Children from homes where the mother's partner harmed pets or drank large quantities of alcohol were also more likely to engage in fire-setting behavior.


What Every Clinician Needs to Know About Juvenile Firesetters

About one in every four fires is intentionally set -- and almost half of these fires was set by youth under the age of 18.


Arson is a serious crime.  It injures and kills people, destroys properties, and destabilizes neighborhoods.


According to the FBI, juvenile firesetters accounted for roughly half (at least 49%) or more of those arrested for arson -- for the ninth straight year. 


In 2003, 51% of those arrested were under 18, nearly one-third were under the age of 15, and 3% were under the age of 10.


Studies have shown that the majority of normal children possess an interest in fire and nearly half have engaged in fire-play.  For many young people, the attraction to fire leads to juvenile fire-play and firesetting -- fire-starting activity that fire investigators determine to be short of arson.  This behavior may be a precursor for the crime of arson.


Even though the majority of child-set fires are started out of curiosity, not malice, the damage they cause, both in economic and human costs, is real and devastating.  Juvenile arson and youth-set fires result in over 300 deaths and 2,000 injuries annually, and $300 million in property damage and more than 400,000 incidents annually.


Juveniles who are involved in significant fires resulting in property loss, personal injury, or death can be arrested for the crime of arson.  Several factors are taken into consideration for determining criminal intent, including the firesetter's age, the nature and extent of the individual's firesetting history, and the motive and intent behind the firesetting.


Legal definitions of arson vary from state to state.  However, if there is sufficient evidence for intentional and malicious firesetting, then the juvenile can be charged with arson.



Characteristics of Firesetters


Juvenile firesetters fall into three general groups:


The first is made up of children, mainly boys, under 7 years of age.  Generally, fires started by these children are the result of accidents or curiosity.


In the second group of firesetters are children ranging in age from 8 to 12.  Although the firesetting of some of these children is motivated by curiosity or experimentation, a greater proportion of their firesetting represents underlying psychosocial conflicts.  They will continue to set fires until their issues are addressed and their needs are met.


The third group comprises adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18.  These youth tend to have a long history of undetected fire-play and firestarting behavior.  Their current firesetting episodes are usually either the result of psychosocial conflict and turmoil or intentional criminal behavior.  They have a history of school failure and behavior problems, and are easily influenced by their peers.


Children who set fires may have one or more of these characteristics:




Unfortunately, families and even law enforcement personnel are often reluctant to take action on what they think (and hope) is a one-time occurrence.  Law enforcement personnel sometimes fail to report incidents as crime and so the juvenile avoids intervention and/or prosecution.  Sometimes families simply ignore the seriousness of the behavior. 


However, ALL children who have engaged in fireplay or firesetting behavior need intervention.  Even very young children who were just curious need to be educated on the dangers of fireplay so that they do not continue the behavior and grow up to be arsonists.


Here are some specific things that parents can do:


Parental Awareness

Take notice of your children.  If they are using or carrying ignition material (matches, lighters) for no particular reason, talk with them and listen to them.  Be aware of their moods, feelings, and relationships both within and outside the home.


Straight Talk

Talk to your children about the realities of the law.  A fire that is set can lead to the felony charge of Arson.  This is a serious crime.  Fire can destroy property, injure others, or take lives.


Adult Modeling

Set a good example.  Most kids learn how to use fire by watching the adults around them (most often parents).  If the behavior of adults does not show respect for fire, the behavior of children most certainly won't.  Most kids learn how to relate to others and handle stress from their parents.  How you live your life impacts greatly on how your children live their lives.



Keep matches and lighters in a safe place, high and out of reach of young children.  Lock them up if necessary.



Don't ignore the obvious.  When kids use fire in ways that are harmful or dangerous, problems will occur.  Whether through education or an in-depth mental health evaluation, seek appropriate help before problems occur.  Punishment, discipline, and "scare tactics" do not work.  You will need the help, support, and guidance of a professional.   Firesetting behavior will not stop without intervention.


Find Help

Your local fire department is often the best point of first contact when you need help with a child who is misusing fire.  They may be able to refer you to professionals who have experience working with juvenile firesetters.  If that doesn't work, contact SOS Fires at 503-805-8482 or e-mail.

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