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Fire Setter Program Ramps up Counseling as Summer Arrives

Audio

Aired 6/10/09

Half of all arsons are committed by juveniles. And San Diego's Burn Institute runs an education program for juvenile fire setters. Now, the institute has a partnership with the University of San Diego to provide counseling for some of the more difficult cases.

— Half of all arsons are committed by juveniles. And San Diego's Burn Institute runs an education program for juvenile fire setters. Now, the institute has a partnership with the University of San Diego to provide counseling for some of the more difficult cases.

Ronn Johnson is a professor of counseling at USD who has counseled juvenile fire setters for many years. He says some kids set fires because they're curious. Some are impulsive. And he says some of them are expressing deep psychological problems.

"The toughest case I ever saw was a boy who not only had the issue of the fire setting, but also was involved in strangling small animals."

Johnson says this was a boy who suffered some severe child abuse.

"And one thing he would do is, after he'd strangled the small animals and killed them, he would set them on fire. One of these fires got out of hand and it set the garage on fire. The garage was connected to the house and the house went up," says Johnson.

Every year, the San Diego Burn Institute deals with about 250 local kids who are identified as either fire setters or bomb makers. Most of them are referred by the juvenile court system or local fire departments. Until now, the Burn Institute's program has been strictly educational. Kids learn what fire does to the human body. They learn how fire behaves and what the penalties are, for arson. Ronn Johnson has added the dimension of psychological counseling.

Gwenn Lammers is a juvenile fire setter interventionist with the Burn Institute.

"The bulk of the children who come through our program, I'd say maybe 80 percent, are what we'd classify as curiosity fire setters," says Lammers. "They are low-risk fire setters who have experimented with matches and lighters."

But then there was the ten-year-old who set fire to his infant sister's crib while she was lying in it. Lammers says the boy had a history of setting fire to toys.

"Toys of his own and toys of other children. And we found that he was experiencing some jealousy with the arrival of his little sister. So he set her crib on fire with the intent of getting her out of his life," she says.

The fire was stopped before it harmed the baby girl. Johnson says there's no one explanation for why a troubled kid sets fires. It may result from anger or depression. The fire setting can be expressive. A cry for help from someone suffering emotional pain from abuse or neglect.

Johnson says counseling is often the answer, but it isn't a quick fix for a pathological fire setter.

"Those are the ones that are going to require a lot more support than we can actually provide them in the roughly 15 to 25 sessions that we might work with them," says Johnson. "But if they follow up, with treatment after that, they tend to respond more appropriately over time."

Juvenile fire setting may seem like someone else's problem. But kids set fires on school grounds and in San Diego canyons. Gwenn Lammers says a firefighter was injured earlier this year in a fire set by one of the kids who ended up in the Burn Institute program.

Captain Mike Merriken is an investigator with the San Diego fire department. He says juvenile arsonists are generally boys who suffer some level of family neglect. He adds that fires set by kids are as dangerous and deadly as any other kind.

"I mean once the fire begins the juvenile has no control over the behavior of the fires," he says. "It's going to be a naturally occurring event. A firefighter has just as good a chance of being injured in a fire set by a juvenile as by an adults arsonist."

Merriken says most fire setting by kids happens outdoors, very often in canyons. And he's expecting the incidence to increase dramatically over the coming months as kids are out of school for summer. That will be increasing concern as the summer sun dries up the landscape and fire season starts coming our way.

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