Ann Hughes stripped her house of every match and lighter in an effort to stop her son from setting fires.
But she knew that was not enough when she picked up the boy’s 2-year-old brother one morning and found that half an inch of the toddler’s hair was singed black.
“I freaked out,” Hughes said, recalling the day that she made the discovery seven years ago. “The only thing I could think to do was call a fireman.”
The next day, Hughes enrolled her son in the Ventura County Fire Department’s Juvenile Firesetter Program. The program, which pairs each child firesetter with a firefighter, uses education and rewards to discourage children from playing with fire.
Hughes’ son is one of more than 500 children under 13 years of age who have gone through the county program since it began in 1983. According to officials connected with the program, no more than 10 of the children have reverted to setting fires.
But the problem of children setting fires is serious, state officials say.
Juveniles, either acting alone or with an adult, were responsible for 84% of the 44,000 fires intentionally set in California in 1988, according to the most recent data available from the Office of the State Fire Marshal.
Children who were simply playing with lighters or matches were responsible for 6,000 of the fires, which resulted in six deaths, 119 injuries and $15.5 million in damage, according to the data.
State Fire Marshal James F. McMullen said children ages 2 to 7 who play with matches and lighters usually do so out of an innocent curiosity about fire. Children ages 7 to 11 may set fires to get attention because of an underlying problem, such as abuse or loneliness. And youngsters ages 12 or older may have psychological problems, McMullen said.
“Unfortunately, if unchecked, a curious firesetter becomes a juvenile arsonist and then an adult arsonist,” McMullen said. “It’s a graduating problem if it’s not cared for.”
Hughes said she saw a dramatic increase in the number of fires her son set in the six months before she enrolled him in the Ventura County program.
Hughes said the child’s occasional interest in setting fire to piles of Popsicle sticks and shoelaces became a daily habit. But the fires stopped immediately after her son began meeting with Fire Engineer Jim Ackerman, Hughes said.
Hughes’ son, now 15, has set only one fire since he completed the program. That slip was quickly corrected with one additional meeting with Ackerman, Hughes said.
“I think he started realizing the seriousness of what could happen,” Hughes said of her son.
The Ventura County program, which is presented in three sessions, introduces children to the dangers of playing with fire.
“No one can explain it like a firefighter--the pain of burns and the treating of burns,” Ackerman said.
During the first meeting, the firefighters tell the children and their families a story about what happens to people who are seriously burned. The detailed narrative, called the burn treatment story, is illustrated with snapshots of fire victims that show everything from how dead tissue is pulled from burned areas to the way skin grafts are performed.
The firesetters are also shown pictures of children who have sustained burns so severe that their facial characteristics have been obliterated.
During the meeting, the children are asked to rub a basketball while firefighters liken the sensation to the tough, unpliable texture of a burned person’s skin.
Firefighters may go on to say that some burned children cannot throw a baseball because of damage to their hands. And they sometimes talk about how sad it is when toys, such as skateboards, are destroyed in a fire.
Sometimes children are taken to the site of a fire so they can smell the smoke and witness the destruction firsthand.
“We’ve got to make them experience it without going through the tragedy,” Ackerman said. Later in the session, the children are asked to apologize to their parents for setting fires. Then, the family is coached in fire-safety practices, such as the “stop, drop and roll” technique of squelching flames on one’s body or clothing, Ackerman said.
Firefighters also use the first visit, which takes place at the children’s houses, to evaluate the home environments of the firesetters. During an interview with the children alone, the firefighters try to determine whether the children are simply curious about fires or are problem firesetters who are reacting to underlying trauma.
If the firefighters notice something that indicates possible child abuse or other problems, they contact another county agency, Ackerman said. In the case of problem firesetters, the firefighters confer with mental health experts and decide whether to run their educational program in conjunction with counseling, Ackerman said.
During the second meeting, which is held two weeks after the first, the firefighters discuss smoke detectors and exit drills from the house in case of fire. The children are enlisted to check the smoke detector once a month to make sure it works, Ackerman said.
The reward for good behavior comes a month later with a trip to the fire station, where the children are encouraged to put on firemen’s gear, play on the firetruck and squirt water from a hose. They are given mock firefighter’s badges and certificates signed by the fire chief.
The Ventura County program was begun in 1983 because firefighters began getting more and more requests from parents who needed help.
About 15 firefighters got together and organized a meeting with a staff psychologist from Ventura County on how to interview a firesetter. They also relied on a guide put out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that discusses counseling juvenile firesetters.
About 20 firefighters are now involved in the program, which has grown to include agencies such as the Ventura Fire Department, the Santa Paula Fire Department, the county Correctional Services Agency, county Mental Health Services and the Alisa Ann Ruch California Burn Foundation in Canoga Park.
The department also runs a Teen Fire Prevention Program developed four years ago for teen-agers who have been cited for arson by the police or a fire investigator, Ackerman said. The juveniles meet with firefighters and listen to the burn treatment story, then spend about 25 hours collecting aluminum cans. The proceeds from the cans are donated to the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation to help send burned children to a special summer camp.
Ackerman also has compiled a book on the program, which includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency material and referral information for problem firesetters and possible child abuse victims. The book, which also includes the burn treatment story and pictures, has been sold to fire departments in other counties.
But not everyone agrees with all parts of the Ventura County program.
Kenneth Fineman, one of the first Southern California psychologists to treat young arsonists, said he is uneasy about the program’s practice of showing pictures of burn victims to children for fear it might traumatize them.
“I don’t know that that is necessary at all,” Fineman said. “The scare approach is not effective.”
But county officials argue that they have had no complaints about the pictures, which are shown to the children only after parental permission is obtained.
And Linda Ramos, a typist for the county, said the pictures of the burn victims helped curb her 9-year-old son’s firesetting tendencies.
“They like to see things going up in flames,” she said of child firesetters. “They don’t like to think it might be themselves going up in flames.”
Ramos said her son, who set three fires in one week in September, has not set one since he finished the program. And he constantly wears the firefighter’s badge he earned, Ramos said.
“Even after he takes a shower, he will put the badge back on his pajamas,” Ramos said.
Ramos said she would also like to enroll her 3-year-old son in the program someday.
“I feel it saved my kids’ lives as well as ours,” Ramos said of the program. “He could have burned the house down as well as us in it.”