Half of Fires Laid to Youths : The New Arsonist: He's Young--and He's Angry

Times Staff Writer

After the embers died, fire officials investigating the 1978 Malibu-Agoura blaze--which killed one man, razed 224 homes and caused $24 million in property damage--found that the fire was set by a 15-year-old boy from a troubled family with a host of emotional problems.

The young man belonged to a group that is gaining increased attention from psychologists who study arsonists: He was young, and he was angry.

While there may be no neat psychological profile of the arsonist, there is one sociological characteristic that stands out above the rest: Almost half those arrested in the United States for arson are juveniles. And the experts point out that most other arsonists were invariably involved in setting fires when they were children.

The job of catching arsonists is especially difficult, according to police--who this week are searching two Southern California cities for the culprits in arson-set blazes that have caused tens of millions of dollars in damage and taken three lives.

Law officers say that arsonists set fires for a variety of reasons. Although some set fires for profit or to cover up crimes, many others set them for spite and revenge against loved ones, employers or society. Collectively the latter are a passive and uncommunicative group who set fires as an emotional cry for help, experts say.

"Arsonists come in all sizes, shapes, ethnic backgrounds," said Joel Dvoskin, director of forensic services for New York State Office of Mental Health. Most are male, but the number of women has grown in recent years.

But the ultimate underlying characteristic that unites arsonists is that they set fires when they are angry. "They are people who do not have the sophistication to deal with that anger," Dvoskin said, "so they deal with the stress with the primitive resource at hand--fire."

Focusing on Children

In light of such evidence, many mental health and law enforcement workers are beginning to focus more concretely on the child offender in hopes of stemming the nationwide tide of arson.

The toll from arson--which accounts for nearly 20% of all fires--is staggering, increasing tenfold since 1970, according to federal figures. Last year alone, more than 1,500 people died, 14,000 were injured and nearly $20 billion in property damage was caused by arson fires. The U.S. attorney general, noting that arson is the fastest growing violent crime committed by children, called this spring for an initiative to forge model treatment and enforcement programs to deal with the epidemic.

In California--where last year there were more than 44,000 arson fires, resulting in more than $160 million in damage, 500 injuries and 21 deaths--fire officials and mental health experts are backing legislation that would set up a statewide task force to find solutions to the juvenile arson problem.

National Foundation

One unique treatment program that is dealing with this problem is the San Francisco-based National Firehawk Foundation, in which counselors, government agencies and the firefighters themselves work together to treat child arsonists.

Under the Firehawk program, the firefighters receive special mental health training and in turn help the arsonist and his family find the proper counseling. They also act as "big brothers" for the children, many of whom are fatherless, said Pam McLaughlin, who with psychologist Jessica Gaynor founded the program four years ago with a federal grant.

Fire officials say that arson is one of the most difficult crimes to solve, mainly because it is a crime of stealth, usually conducted during hours when there are no witnesses. And most arson investigations take a long time to solve because the evidence often is buried under tons of debris.

Children Escape

The child arsonist in particular is likely to be treated lightly because law officers tend to write off the incidents as childhood curiosity, McLaughlin said.

She takes schools to task for ignoring or lacking knowledge about child arsonists. "They have the maintenance men put out the fires and then they don't do anything with the kids because they don't want their insurance rates to go up, or because they don't know better," McLaughlin said. "There were more than 2,000 fires a month reported in schools nationally. They are letting these children off, which means they have a good chance of becoming adult arsonists."

Kenneth R. Fineman, a psychiatric professor at the University of California, Irvine, believes that treatment of arsonists is very effective. "But you have to get them early, before they do something devastating," he says.

Attracted to Fire

One of the early warning signs that a child may be turning into a full-blown arsonist is a fascination with fire, he said. Such children may continually play with matches, burn twigs, singe their clothes or burn objects in the backyard.

Treatment varies depending on the individual, he said. For young children, fire prevention education might be enough. But most arsonists, young and old, need counseling. For some, behavior modification works, but others need psychotherapy. Almost all need help in learning how to communicate and deal with their anger in less dangerous ways.

In Los Angeles last year, there were 23,616 fires. Of those, arson was the cause or was suspected in 6,532 cases. These fires caused 42 deaths and $31 million in damage, according to Capt. Thomas Burau of the city Fire Department's arson section.

"It's a problem that we haven't really addressed yet," Burau said of child arson. "It's one of those cases where we are so busy putting out the fires, that we can't get the manpower to prevent them."

Tracking Them Down

To help with arson prevention, city fire officials recently began more detailed tracking of child offenders. When a child is caught after starting a fire, his name goes into a computer system. If he is caught again, there is a record of the first incident. Armed with that history, fire officials can insist on counseling, or if the problem seems chronic, they can take the child into custody.

"The problem of juvenile arson has been getting out of hand for a long time. It's been one of our biggest problems," said Fire Inspector Richard Grimm of the Ontario Fire Department, which is involved in the Firehawk program. "We kept catching kid after kid and there was no community resource to deal with them. I think this sort of program may ultimately make our jobs as firefighters a lot easier."

One of his cases involved a 2 1/2-year-old child who set his family's apartment on fire. The week before his father had been jailed for molesting his sister, an act that the boy witnessed. Grimm said he tried to talk the boy's mother into counseling for the entire family, but she insisted that her young son was "just playing around."

A week later, the mother, crying hysterically, called Grimm. The child had set a mattress afire and the family had almost perished. "She pleaded for counseling that time around," he said.

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