August 04, 2016 - 12:56 pm

Prepare - Youth-set Fires

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Part of preparation is knowing who may be a potential youth firesetter.

Because there are so many different variables, trying to describe one specific ‘who’ is impossible. These variables include age, motivation, the type and number of previous fires set, the ignition material used to set the fire, and if he set the fire alone or as part of a group. What is known is that the impact of youth firesetting is significant to everyone -- the youth, her family, and the entire community.

There are two generally used types of classifications when evaluating a youth firesetter: WHY the fire was set and how much RISK there is of more and larger fires being set by that youth.


  • Curiosity (fire interest or experimental):  The compulsive firesetters. Statistics show these are the most common type of youth firesetters. They are generally between the ages of 3 and 10, so they often do not understand the consequences of fire-play. Interventions may include fire-safety education, evaluation for ADHD, and parent training.

  • Cry-for-help (troubled or crisis):  Consciously or subconsciously they use fire to draw attention to a stress in their lives and can be any age. Common problems underlying this type of firesetting are depression, ADHD, or family stress. Interventions may include cognitive-behavioral therapy, treatment for depression, medication consultation, and family therapy.

  • Delinquent (criminal):  They youth often shows little empathy for others but also tends to avoid harming others. Typically 11-15 years old, they may cause significant property damage, and often show other common aggression and conduct problems. Interventions may include behavior management, empathy training, relaxation techniques, and treatment for depression.

  • Severely Disturbed (psychologically or emotionally disturbed):   They have a fixation on fire, including youth who may want to harm or kill themselves. Interventions may include intensive inpatient or outpatient cognitive-behavioral therapy and social skills training.

  • Cognitively Impaired:  Developmentally disabled or impaired youth who tend to lack good judgment but do not do intentional harm; however, significant property damage is common. Interventions may include special education, intensive fire education, and behavior management.

  • Sociocultural:  Set fires primarily for support from peers or community groups, such as those fires set during riots or in religious fervor. Interventions may include fire-safety education, traditional psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and family therapy.


  • Some Risk: Fires set by these youth are often their first, are totally unintentional, and happen because the youth are curious and enjoy experimentation. Both the adults and youth in the family may not have a good awareness of what could happen, and there is often easy access to ignition tools and minor lapses in supervision.  

  • Definite Risk:  For the youth, firesetting is recurrent, purposeful, and intentional, although resulting damage may or may not be intentional. Often the number and riskiness of the fires increases; the firesetter begins using accelerants, or endangers people. The youth may have poor social skills, poor peer relationships, or neurological limitations. Quite often the firesetting behavior can be related to a family, school, or personal stress/crisis. A lack of supervision and a lack of family understanding of the danger of fire are common.

  • Extreme Risk: Not only is the firesetting recurrent, purposeful, and intentional, but other behaviors of the youth may also seem extreme. Often fires are set with criminal implications. During the incident (or as its purpose) one or more items burned may be symbolic, and injury potential and property loss is high. Because of many issues, ongoing stress/crisis may overwhelm the family; complex solutions are needed for both the child and the family.


A single, unintentional spark can become a devastating fire.

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Read 1681 times Last modified on April 03, 2017 - 12:04 pm
Monica Colby

Monica Colby is our Fire and Life Safety Specialist, working in the Fire and Life Safety Division of the Rapid City Fire Department.

[email protected]  605-394-5233 x6108

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