Curiosity a factor in most fire incidents involving juveniles

Published: Saturday, Nov. 17 2012 12:08 a.m. MST

Gas cans remain at the scene where children were burned while playing with gasoline in Perry Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Even for seasoned firefighters, calls that involve children are some of the most heart-wrenching.

"If you have a soft heart at all, it's tough," said Utah deputy fire marshal Stan Robins.

Robins said the five elementary school-age boys burned in a fiery accident Thursday afternoon outside a home in Perry, Box Elder County, weighed heavily on his mind Friday. Two of the boys remained hospitalized Friday at the Intermountain Burn Center at University Hospital. The others were treated for their injuries and released.

Details of the explosion and fire that injured the boys are still unclear. Officials said the boys were playing with cans of gasoline that were sitting on the side of house.

While he had no official information about the incident, Robins said childhood curiosity is the driving factor behind most fires set by juveniles.

"Kids just want to see what will happen. They certainly don't foresee the outcome being terrible like that," he said.

Investigator Russ Whitney of the Salt Lake City Fire Department said children need to be taught that fire "can be a good thing in the right circumstance with proper supervision."

"We all enjoy our campfires when when we're hunting or camping," Whitney said. "A fire can save your life if you're lost in rough terrain. But it has to be under the right circumstances.

"A fire set in your home, in your basement, in your closet, that's not the right circumstance," he said.

Ben Sharer, a Unified Fire Authority firefighter who oversees the agency's Juvenile Firesetter Program, said early interventions are highly successful. After completing UFA's program, 95 percent of children never play with fire again, he said.

Firefighters go to great lengths to explain the consequences of fire play. While the concepts of injury and death are more readily understood, the prospects of losing beloved possessions and being displaced from one's homes can be just as troubling.

One child was recently brought to tears by the prospect of fire destroying his mother's scrapbooks.

Children and their parents are required to attend the program together. One of the first conversations involves asking parents and children where matches and lighters are stored in their homes.

"The parents usually say, 'We keep them in the junk drawer in kitchen.' The kids can rattle off 10 different places in the house where there's matches and lighters," Sharer said.

Children of smokers tend to explore fire play younger than children of nonsmokers, largely due to access to cigarette lighters and matches.

The leading cause of residential fires resulting in the death of a child is fire play by children.

"For adults, it's smoking," Sharer said.

Nationally, numbers of structure fires are going down each year. However, incidents of juvenile firesetting are on the increase.

"We need to refocus our efforts with the public. We need them to focus more on the issue of fire play," Sharer said.

Most fire departments have a fire-starters interventions program. For a complete list of agencies with programs, visit the State Fire Marshal's website.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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