BANGOR — A match thrown into a closet guts a suburban home. A five-time arsonist turns himself in. An abuse victim throws a burning bag into a vacant building.
For firefighters and investigators throughout the country, these are familiar stories with familiar themes. What makes them unusual are the ages of the suspects: 4, 15 and 12.
More than 100 participants, ranging from fire chiefs to school counselors, came to Eastern Maine Technical College Thursday to learn about juvenile fire-starters. Unstudied for decades, this group began facing serious scrutiny in the early 1980s and is now believed to account for a large segment of set fires in the United States.
Statistics presented at the seminar show that children playing with matches are responsible for 25 to 40 percent of set fires. In addition, juveniles account for 56 percent of arson arrests.
While statewide statistics aren’t available, the numbers from individual communties that do keep track indicate that Maine matches the national figures, according to officials.
“Maine is no different,” said William Leighton, a public education coordinator for Maine Fire Training and Education, which co-sponsored the two-day conference with the Fire Safety for Children Task Force.
During the first day of the conference, experts stressed the need for early intervention and education.
“Curiosity is normal,” said Irene Pinsonneault, a nationwide expert on juvenile fires. “If kids stare at a flame at the end of a candle and don’t find it interesting, I’d wonder if that child was dull.”
The problem, she said, is acting on that fascination. The audience watched an interview Pinsonneault conducted with a 4-year-old boy who threw a match into a closet while his parents were gone. The house was leveled.
“Look at this kid,” said Joe Richardson, director of juvenile programs for the Department of Public Safety in Providence, R.I. “He’s cherubic. He’s blond. He’s blue-eyed.”
And it is that innocence that keeps many child-related fires from being properly investigated. A school guidance counselor may accept at face value a pupil’s explanation that he simply was playing with matches. It takes an experienced fire investigator to taste the burnt wood, to know if an accelerant was used and, if so, what type.
“Unfortunately, the idea that children are arsonists is a lot easier to accept in 1996 than it was 20 years ago,” said Richardson.
While most child-related fires stem from simple curiosity, a large number are set by children who come from dysfunctional homes and see fire as a way of gaining control of their lives.
The audience heard about a 14-year-old who sleeps with an alarm clock on his chest. According to Pinsonneault, his parents sleep in shifts because the boy had threatened to set fires at all hours of the night.
“If you’re helpless and set a fire in a garbage can, you can get three engines, two ladder trucks, an ambulance — the whole works,” Richardson said. “That’s power.”
But the rarest — and hardest to treat — cases are those children whose fascination descends into pathology. The audience listened to a tape of a young voice telling a dispatcher he was going to drop a “gas bomb” in the elevator of a Providence building. The boy, whom speakers called Charlie, had eluded fire investigators four times because no one believed a 15-year-old could set such fires.
On the day of the call, Charlie leveled the building with a Molotov cocktail. His attempts at attention thwarted, Charlie finally turned himself in.
In Maine, where rural schools and fire departments are separated by long distances, cooperation is key. The beginning of that cooperation, experts agreed Thursday, is to educate residents about how to spot problem juveniles before fires are started.
The conference continues today with a daylong discussion of community intervention strategies.