By Kelsey Givens
February 9, 2011.
It will long live in the memory of Pahrump residents.
It’s the day a house fire claimed the lives of 4- and 5- year-old brothers, an 18-month-old baby and a 24-year-old woman.
In the fire’s aftermath, a grieving mother was arrested, a father was left reeling and the community was left with agonizing questions.
Among them: How could this happen?
State and local fire investigators would later reveal that these four people were killed because an unsupervised child, with a history of playing with fire, most likely sparked the blaze.
It’s an answer no one wants to believe.
It’s an illustration, though, of an issue plaguing the nation.
It’s the dangers of juvenile fire setters, many of whom set fires because life at home is chaos, says Kathryn B. Hooper, director of Partnerships for Youth at Risk.
Some of them are being caught before any serious damage is done. But for too many, it’s too late.
According to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, around half of all people arrested for arson each year are under the age of 18.
“We’ve had close to 4,000 kids come through this program, and that’s only touching the tip of the iceberg,” Hooper said about the PFYR fire setters intervention program.
And it is a problem that is on the rise according to the William Gladden Foundation, an organization that educates people about issues that affect families and juveniles.
It plagues every town and city across the nation, including Pahrump, but not many people are aware of how prevalent it is in their own backyard.
Fire officials at both the state and local level are working hard to change that perception and make people more aware.
They have also been working to provide more resources to families of juvenile fire setters and getting them treatment for their actions rather than strictly punishing them.
In an age where many juveniles are being tried as adults, getting them the help they need before they cause substantial damage may be the key to solving this problem both here and across the nation.
Who are juvenile fire setters?
There are six types of juvenile fire setters defined by the American Psychological Association.
Curious or accidental fire setters and those who are crying for help, delinquents, severely disturbed, cognitively impaired or sociocultural setters.
Pahrump has seen all of these types of children from “experimental to acting out to full-blown fire setters,” said Pahrump Valley Fire and Rescue Chief Scott Lewis.
“They’re setting fires behind houses and in a lot of cases to content in their own bedrooms. It’s even going on at school bus stops,” he said.
Sometimes these fires are set by curious children who don’t understand the consequences of their actions. Sometimes they’re set by juveniles who want to show off for their friends.
Recently, however, the most common type authorities in Pahrump are seeing are the crisis fire setters, says PVFRS Lt. Anita Smith.
“We look at three types of fire setters: curious, criminal and crisis setters. The most common type we’re seeing now are the crisis setters,” she said.
These juveniles set fires as a way to deal with emotional problems they can’t handle another way.
They could be, “children who consciously or subconsciously use fire to draw attention to a stress in their life,” or “children with a fixation on fire, including paranoid and psychotic children who may want to harm,” according to the APA.
Many of the children setting fires in Pahrump have some kind of family crisis going on in their lives. They’re taking out their feelings about it in the form of destruction, Smith said.
It’s not surprising the majority of juvenile Pahrump fire setters are struggling with family issues, according to the William Gladden Foundation’s publication “Juvenile Fire Setters.”
Nationally, most children who set fires are doing it for similar reasons.
“Problems such as domestic violence, poor family relationships, abuse and neglect cause many children to set fires and commit other delinquent acts. Their fire setting behavior is often a symbolic expression of inner pain and a cry for help,” it states in the publication.
What is even more disturbing is the age these children begin setting their first fires.
“We’ve seen kids as young as 4 years old, but I would say the most we’re seeing right now, that we’re aware of, are 5 years old up to 8 or 9 years old,” Lewis said.
Whatever the cause, juvenile fire setters in Pahrump follow the national average, causing more than half of all arson fires each year, Lewis said.
What Types of Prevention Exist?
Authorities at every level have been working to prevent juveniles from starting down the path to becoming a fire setter, and rehabilitate those that already have.
The research Lewis has done on the problem here in Pahrump reportedly led to a revamping of the fire education and prevention program Pahrump Valley Fire and Rescue presents to elementary school children each year.
The new approach is a more direct and realistic message hitting home the dangers of playing with and setting fires.
“It’s more direct and it’s hitting the kids more emotionally, getting them to understand the consequences of playing with fire,” Smith explained.
The new video the department has gone with in recent years shows a child dying from a fire.
While it may be more graphic than the usual kid-friendly educational aids used in the past, Lewis said it seems to be working.
“The research we’ve done changed our approach, and from what we’ve seen it’s been more effective,” he said. “The video is more realistic than the one we used before, which skewed the message and added to the excitement of fire rather than showing the outcomes.”
Lewis said they are also trying to let the community know there are programs to help educate and rehabilitate juveniles who have already set their first fires.
Pahrump Valley Fire and Rescue works closely with the Partnerships for Youth at Risk program based out of Henderson.
The organization’s fire intervention program looks at juveniles recommended to them on a case by case basis. They then place them into their classes and recommend any additional outside care they may need like counseling, anger management or drug and alcohol education.
“We look at fire as a symptom,” Hooper said. “First, when they’re referred to us, we do background to make sure we’re meeting their needs. Then during class we do a MASH triage to further evaluate why they are setting fires,” she said.
And juveniles don’t have to be in trouble with the law to be taken into this rehabilitation program.
“We want to provide a safe haven,” Lewis said. “We want them to be able to reach out to us for help before it’s too late, without the stigma of getting into trouble with the law.”
For anyone concerned their child or a child they know is setting or playing with fire, they can contact Pahrump Valley Fire and Rescue at 775-727-5658. Or contact the Partnerships for Youth at Risk for more information at www.ppfyr.org.