Firefighters want to douse plans of young arsonists

Jim Grant/Appeal News Service A U.S. Forest Service firefighter uses foam to extinguish a small wildland started by juveniles in 2004.

Jim Grant/Appeal News Service A U.S. Forest Service firefighter uses foam to extinguish a small wildland started by juveniles in 2004.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE - In July, three boys lit five fires with paper matches, with one Tahoe Basin blaze growing into a 75-by-75-foot patch of burned U.S. Forest Service land.

Fifty firefighters, a helicopter and a handcrew battled the flames and extinguished the blaze. The three boys, one 12 years old and the others 14, were later convicted of arson or criminal fire starting.

As the dry season hits Tahoe , many fire officials and others are keeping their eye on juveniles satisfying their curiosity with a match or pursuing a darker interest in fire.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, 293 fires in the basin have been started by juveniles during a 30-year span beginning in 1973.

"To me it seems a little high, but I guess it all depends where you're from," said Rex Norman, public affairs officer for Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

Four blazes on U.S. Forest Service land were started by youths last summer.

And in the past month, two small blazes were ignited by young, curious fire starters, said Beth Brady, fire prevention officer at the U.S. Forest Service.

A study titled "Juvenile Firesetting: A Research Overview," released last month by the U.S. Department of Justice, stated blazes started by juveniles kill 300 people and damage $300 million worth of property in any given year.

Eighty-five of every 100 lives lost is a child in those fires, the report stated.

Co-authored by Charles Putnam and John Kirkpatrick, co-directors of Juticeworks at the University of New Hampshire, the study included the four psychological subtypes of young fire-setters.

"These subtypes involve differences mostly in motivation but often implicate other individual and environment characteristics related to firesetting," the study stated. "The curious firesetter uses fire out of fascination, the pathological out of deep-seated individual dysfunction, the expressive as a cry for help and the delinquent as a means to antisocial or destructive ends."

Brady said the two juvenile firestarters in the last month were of the curious, unintentional nature. Most are, she said.

Using statistics from the National Fire Protection Association, Brady said more than 60 percent of juveniles who start fires do so out of curiosity. The other main portion are those are considered at-risk while less than 1 percent are diagnosed with serious mental problems, she said.

As a way to keep track of numbers, and intervene when needed, a task force was formed last month. Comprised of law enforcement agencies, fire departments, Child Protective Services, juvenile probation department and others, Brady said the goal is not to let juvenile fire starters "slip through the cracks."

El Dorado County Assistant District Attorney Hans Uthe said research indicates a relationship between serious juvenile arsonists and other behavioral problems, so cases are taken seriously.

Those convicted can be sent to juvenile treatment centers or other rehabilitation areas. But youth ranches won't hold juvenile arsonists for fear of burned buildings or other property, Uthe said.

Newly hired South Lake Tahoe Fire Marshal Ray Zachau will oversee the department's juvenile fire education program.

He said the children who started the fires in the past month are waiting to go through the system. Each will be assessed of their motive by either him or Capt. Brad Piazzo.

Zachau said that when he was a fire marshal in Santa Cruz, a dozen juveniles on average would go through the education program.


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