By Jerrod Brown, Ph.D., Don Porth, B.S., & Kathi Osmonson, M.S.
Fires are dangerous events that can result in the loss of life and serious damage to property. Although there are no official clinical designations for youth who start fires, these fire events can be generally classified into two different categories: simple and complex. These refer less to the motivation behind fire setting and more to the methods of intervention.
Simple fire setting behavior generally occurs due to lack of information or knowledge about fire. Youth will model adult behavior and take advantage of ignition materials that are easily available. While this is common among young children, it can also occur in older children where fire use in the home is limited. It can also be promoted by the premature assignment of responsibility. Assigning a responsibility involving fire to a youth (e.g., burning trash in a burn barrel, lighting candles, lighting fireworks, etc.) before they are capable or willing to learn and follow established rules can lead to over-confidence and misuse. Simple fire setting behaviors can most often be remedied through parental and youth education, awareness of the influences, and establishment of clear rules and limits. When reaching the legal age of culpability, even simple fire setting can lead to involvement in the criminal justice system.
Complex fire setting behavior occurs for reasons that are not easily remedied. Behavior can evolve after a youth who began with simple fire setting has become overly familiar with fire and becomes confident in the use of fire without fully understanding it or the problems it presents. Complex fire setting can be complicated when a youth who is familiar with fire use becomes impacted by stress or crisis. For unknown reasons, some youth will resort to fire setting to cope with stress or use it as an acting out behavior to influence their environment. This can sometimes be driven by cognitive characteristics, psychiatric disorders, and other conditions, thus making the interventions complex.
One subset of complex fire setting would be delinquent or strategic fire setting behaviors. These are purposeful and often intended to disrupt and manipulate environments or circumstances. While it seems to be done with knowledge and intent, it remains an abnormal behavior whose consequences are most often not fully understood or appreciated. Delinquent fire setting is often driven by poor decision making and peer pressure. Strategic fire setting is more often associated with gang activity and is very dangerous because it can deliberately target people and circumstances. Regardless of type, delinquent and strategic fire setting can often be traced back to issues related to a collapsed family unit or other stress or crisis in the youth’s life.
A second subset of complex fire setting is pathological fire setting. When youth have intellectual or psychiatric conditions, their familiarity, access, or understanding of fire can be distorted and difficult to remedy. Interventions can be additionally difficult to apply if the interventionist, therapist, or professional does not take a youth’s learning capacity into account. This does not refer to their intelligence, but more to their ability to place behaviors into a productive, societal context.
Regardless of the type of fire setting, serious damage, injury, and death can result from fire setting behavior. It should be noted that the reason a youth chooses to set a fire has little to do with the result. The most innocent action with fire can have devastating results. In particular, younger children are often unable to defend themselves against or escape from a fire they create.
Despite the grave consequences of simple and complex fire setting, this remains a misunderstood and under-identified problem among youths. In fact, the prevalence of these fire events remains unclear. For example, parents, educators, and therapists may not report youth fire setters to the police or fire departments for fear of implicating their child in the juvenile justice system or because they feel youth has learned their lesson from the experience. However, the fire incident itself does not teach a child about the full scope of fire science. Further, parents, educators, and therapists may not be aware of the potential for escalation in fire setting behaviors or the availability of intervention assistance from fire service professionals in most states. As such, fire service and law enforcement professionals can serve as valuable resources in instances of youth fire play and fire setting, even when the damage of a fire is minimal. It should be noted that while most states have intervention services, large areas of the country, especially rural areas, may not have professionals with the specialized training necessary to handle these behaviors. It should not be assumed that a fire department, for example, has a professional on staff.
The origins of fire setting behavior among youths can vary widely. However, in most instances, a youth learns about starting fires from the behavior modeled by family members or portrayals in popular media. This could occur in the context of using candles on a birthday cake or lighting fireworks on the Fourth of July. These modeled behaviors can
inspire curiosity in a youth who may start experimenting with fire in other situations. In turn, the use of fire could become an attempt to garner attention, create a feeling of power, or a display of anger in subsequent situations.
To prevent youth fire setting, early identification via systematic screening and clinical assessment is of paramount importance. Screening and assessment should focus on both the characteristics of fire setting behaviors as well as the presence of any comorbid conditions. Although there is no clear standard for which assessment instruments or protocols to use, a combination of medical, neurological, and psychological evaluations may prove most fruitful. In terms of fire setting behavior, professionals should explore the method, target, and goal of the fire. Further, an examination of the attitudes, values, and frequency of the youth’s fire setting is essential. Beyond fire setting, mental health professionals should evaluate the presence of other conditions that could potentially exacerbate the risk of fire.
A number of cognitive characteristics, psychiatric disorders, and other conditions may increase the risk of fire setting in youths. Cognitive characteristics include deficits in impulse control, affective regulation, information processing, short- and long-term memory, decision-making, and linking cause and effect. Psychiatric diagnoses of concern include anxiety, mood (e.g., depression), behavioral (e.g., attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and conduct disorder), and substance use disorders. Other characteristics that could increase the risk of fire events include adverse childhood experiences such as abuse (e.g., verbal, physical, and sexual abuse), traumatic brain injuries, and limited family and peer support systems.
After a thorough assessment of the youth’s fire setting behaviors and any comorbid conditions, professionals (i.e., fire service, mental health, medical, and other relevant professionals) can use this information to develop and implement individualized intervention plan. Because of the lack of mental health treatment programs that specialize in youth fire setting, a treatment plan will likely need to rely on a combination of providers. Services to consider include fire science education, mental health treatment, substance use treatment, and continued support from specialized social workers. The involvement of family members and other important stakeholders throughout this process can greatly affect the effectiveness of any efforts. These individuals could benefit from trainings that teach them to recognize and address cognitive distortions in youths as well as equip these individuals with the capacity to reinforce effective problem-solving and coping skills in youths. The overarching goal of this collaborative process is the desistance of the youth’s fire setting behavior.
As highlighted in this brief article, youth fire setting can have devastating consequences. Systematic screening and assessment along with collaborative intervention approaches offer hope, particularly when fire setting issues are identified early and effectively treated. Nonetheless, there is a strong need for greater awareness of this issue among fire service, mental health, medical, and criminal justice professionals. Those working in these fields are strongly encouraged to obtain advanced education or training on youthful fire setting. Such efforts can improve the likelihood of effective responses and interventions before destruction of life or property take place.
Important Takeaways on Youth Fire Setting
Simple fire setting is most often driven by lack of knowledge or understanding of fire and ignition tools. Though it can often be remedied by educating the youth and care giver, the danger should not be minimized as this type of behavior has led to devastating results.
Complex fire setting is fire setting behavior complicated by other behavioral issues that make intervention complex and challenging. The youth may be using fire to communicate needs, such as the need for attention or the need for someone to discover bullying, abuse, or other behaviors being perpetrated against them.
Delinquent and strategic fire setting seem deliberate but are most often driven by an ineffective or absent family structure that leads youth to become peer driven in their activities and behaviors.
The prevalence of fire setting among youths remains unclear.
Children typically learn about starting fires from family members or portrayals in popular media.
A combination of medical, neurological, and psychological screening and assessment protocols should be used for evaluation.
The method, target, and goal of the fire setting necessitates evaluation by professionals.
Cognitive characteristics including deficits in impulse control, affective regulation, information processing, memory, and decision-making are associated with complex fire setting.
Psychiatric diagnoses such as anxiety, mood (e.g., depression), behavioral (e.g., attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and conduct disorder), and substance use disorders could confer risk of fire setting.
Negative life experiences including abuse (e.g., verbal, physical, and sexual), traumatic brain injuries, and poor family and peer support systems can exacerbate the risk of fire setting behaviors.
A thorough assessment of the youth should inform the development of an individualized treatment plan.
Services commonly needed include fire education and mental health and substance use treatment.
Fire service, mental health, medical, and criminal justice professionals are strongly encouraged to obtain advanced education or training on youth fire setting.
Jerrod Brown, Ph.D., is an assistant professor, program director, and lead developer for the Master of Arts in Human Services degree with an emphasis in Forensic Behavioral Health for Concordia University, St. Paul in Minnesota. Brown has also been employed with Pathways Counseling Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, for the past 16 years. Pathways provides programs and services benefiting individuals impacted by mental illness and addictions. He is also the founder and CEO of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies (AIAFS) and the Editor-in-Chief of Forensic Scholars Today (FST). Brown is certified as a youth fire setter prevention/intervention specialist, Thinking for a Change (T4C) facilitator, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) trainer, and a problem gambling treatment provider.
Don Porth holds a bachelor’s degree in fire command administration. He served 31 years in the uniformed fire service as a firefighter, public educator, and youth fire setting intervention specialist. He has served on various local and national committees and organizations related to youth fire setting behaviors, including 21 years as president of SOS FIRES: Youth Intervention Programs, a nonprofit specializing in support for youth fire setting intervention programs. Porth currently works as a consultant on fire and life safety issues and manages a national data system (YFIRES.com) for youth fire setting programs.
Kathi Osmonson, Deputy State Fire Marshal, has a master’s degree in forensic behavioral health and coordinates the Minnesota State Youth Fire Intervention Team (YFIT). YFIT partners with law enforcement and mental health, justice, and social agencies to sustain a network of professionals who collaborate to provide intervention. Her career includes volunteer and career firefighting with specialties in fire prevention education and youth fire setting intervention. She is a member of the NFPA 1035 Committee, is an adjunct instructor for the FEMA National Fire Academy, and presents at national and international conferences.