June 15, 2005
Today’s premiere of the MidWeek page focuses on arson, the leading cause of structure fires in Colorado Springs. Most fire starters aren’t in it for money — they’re not old enough to understand insurance fraud.
While investigators sift through the rubble left by arson, other Fire Department officials try to reach young people before they ignite a potential tragedy. Every Wednesday, the MidWeek page will offer readers an inside look at their community. --- The typical arsonist in Colorado Springs isn’t someone burning a house for insurance money or revenge. It’s a male juvenile curious about fire, having problems at home or perhaps bored or angry. “Typically, we arrest more kids than adults (for arson),” said Capt. Mike Dalton of the Colorado Springs Fire Department . “Our problem is more of a juvenile problem versus an arson-for-profit problem.” Arson was the No. 1 cause of structure fires in Colorado Springs from 2000 to 2004 for which investigators were able to determine the cause. Many juvenile arsonists, even those who aren’t caught, apparently outgrow the crime. “Arson is especially a young person’s crime,” said John Hall of the National Fire Protection Association. “It’s reasonable to say most of them are getting out of it as they mature.” Not all, though. A 19-year-old man who admitted starting at 11 and setting three blazes was arrested for a fire at the Bear Creek Nature Center in May 2000. The fire caused $350,000 damage. Joseph Taylor III was sentenced to seven years in prison for setting the fire, which he watched from a hilltop as it heavily damaged the cherished educational resource, which had to be rebuilt. It’s imperative to halt the behavior that leads to arson because 90 percent of children who die in fires started them. Also, children typically don’t run for help because they’re scared of getting in trouble, so the blaze grows. “They’ll start a fire, close a door, go downstairs and watch TV and never tell their parents, or they’ll go and hide,” said Marta Dubay, coordinator of the Fire Department’s Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Program. The program’s monthly classes, taught by firefighters and a man who was burned from head to waist during an accidental blaze, teach children about the dangers of fire. “Usually by the time we see the child, it’s the seventh time they’ve started a fire,” Dubay said. “We don’t want it to get to the point to where they hurt people, but some of them have. The majority have been lucky.” Children ages 10 or older are criminally liable in Colorado for fires they set and can be sentenced to a juvenile detention center. “Parents are very surprised that there is restitution,” said Colorado Springs fire investigator Greg Segura. The juveniles’ parents are responsible for damage caused by arson, even having to pay for the time firefighters spent fighting the fire. The first hour costs $373 per firetruck, covering fuel costs and firefighter wages. Additional time is $115 per hour. “Why should the citizens be paying for someone who committed a crime?” asked Dalton, head of fire investigations. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0366 or firstname.lastname@example.org GETTING HELP Children and teens ages 8 to 17 in El Paso and Teller counties can attend one of the Colorado Springs Fire Department’s monthly juvenile fire-setter intervention classes. Younger children are talked to one on one. The children — mostly boys — are referred by judges, firefighters, police, schools, their parents or others. For more information, call 385-7365. MOST COMMON CAUSES OF STRUCTURE FIRES The top 10 causes of the 1,463 structure fires in Colorado Springs from 2000 to 2004: 1. Arson, 188 cases 2. Unattended cooking, 172 cases 3. Material too close to heat source, 151 cases 4. Electrical short, 130 cases 5. Equipment malfunction, 58 cases 6. Children 10 or younger playing with matches, considered accidental, 56 cases 7. Smoking, 49 cases 8. Natural causes such as lightning, 47 cases 9. Chimney fires, 31 cases 10. Misusing flammable liquids, 29 cases Investigators don’t know what started 409 of the fires. SOURCE: Colorado Springs Fire Department JUVENILE FIRE-STARTERS Almost every case of juvenile arson involves a lack of adequate supervision, easy access to ignition material and a lack of safety awareness. Experts list several categories: Curiosity fire-starters - Usually young, ages 2 to 8 - Children are exploring and experimenting - They can get into any area of the house - Usually child’s first fire Crisis fire-starters - Usually 2 to 10 years old - Often set fire the same day as a bad event - Abuse often is involved - May live in chaotic environment - The fire-setting is usually impulsive - Usually have little remorse Delinquent fire-starters - Know better than to have set the fire - Often carry a lighter for no reason - Risk-takers or children who complain of being bored - Lack good judgment and social skills - Usually teenagers - There is often peer pressure, may brag about it - Fire often involves an accelerant Strategic fire-starters - Usually teenagers - May use fire to get even or to attack someone - Usually in trouble at school, home - Lack remorse, may brag about it - May be gang-related Pathological fire-starters - Usually have long history of fire-setting - Often set “smart fires” — well-planned - May show pattern, even ritualistic - Often proud of it and will gladly show burn scars - May have many fire-related materials such as candles, matches, lighters SOURCE: Colorado Springs Fire Department