Youth Firesetting Is More Common Than You May Think

fire kid1Youth firesetting may be among the most overlooked behaviors that indicate a need for intervention until serious harm is done. With the potential damage and loss of life, youth firesetting cannot be ignored or downplayed in our work with youth. But by the time a youth is caught playing with fire, there have most likely been 10 previous fire starting events for that youth.

If you haven’t already worked with a youth who has engaged in firesetting, it is just a matter of time before you will.

According to the National Fire Protection Association,

  • Fires started by youth accounted for an average of 56,300 fires per year. Associated with these fires were 110 civilian deaths, 880 civilian injuries, and $286 million in direct property damage per year.
  • In 2010, 40 percent of arson arrests were juveniles; of juveniles arrested for arson, 47.6 percent were under 16 years of age.
  • Arrests of juveniles for the crime of arson were higher, proportionally, than for any other crime.

There is no single issue that explains why youth firesetting occurs.

Many of the youth between 5 and 10 years old who engage in firesetting do so out of curiosity and simply do not understand the consequences of firesetting. For many other youth, firesetting can be a way to act out or shows an inability to use good judgment.

According to the American Psychological Association, motivations for youth firesetting include:

  • Cry-for-help: Youth who consciously or subconsciously use fire to draw attention to a stress in their life. Common problems underlying this type of firesetting behavior are depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or family stress.
  • Delinquency: Youth, typically 11 to 15 years old, who often show little empathy for others but tend to avoid harming others. They often show aggression and conduct problems.
  • Severe emotional struggles: Youth with a fixation on fire, with many showing paranoid and psychotic symptoms and often expressing an intent to harm or kill themselves.
  • Sociocultural: Youth who set fires primarily to obtain support from peers or community groups, such as those fires set during riots or in religious fervor.

It is imperative that youth workers ensure that they are prepared to handle issues surrounding youth firesetting.

I have worked in the intervention field most of my adult life and have worked with young people that had firesetting as an issue. Looking back, it is clear that I never did get specific training on this topic. Even today, rarely do I see good trainings that provide youth workers with the proper tools to handle youth firesetting and related issues.

To meet this training need, YIPA is offering Youth Firesetting Prevention & Intervention  as part of our On-Demand training offerings. We want to ensure that youth workers have the information they need to deal with youth firesetting.

Taught by Kathi Osmonson, the Deputy State Fire Marshal for Minnesota Department of Public Safety, the Youth Firesetting Prevention & Intervention training is free to YIPA members.

The reasons underlying youth firesetting can be complicated and sometimes very difficult to understand. There are also various interventions that can bring about positive changes.

Good training on youth firesetting can save lives. We should not be overlooking youth firesetting when considering our training needs as youth workers.


Paul Meunier is the Executive Director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association

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