Ask a Firefighter

Posted: Monday, July 07, 2003

In Rochester, N.Y., a 2-year-old playing with matches started a fire that took his life and the lives of five family members.

In Roanoke, Va., a 7-year-old boy set fire to a chair in an abandoned building, and the fire spread to an adjacent house, trapping an elderly woman.

In Passaic, N.J., a firefighter was killed and hundreds of people lost their homes in a fire started by a group of teenage boys.

These tragic events are not isolated incidents. In a typical year 300 people are killed in the United States and $300 million in property is destroyed in fires set by children. Children themselves usually are the victims of these fires, accounting for 85 of every 100 lives lost.

The number of fires set by children is growing. It's a problem that needs the attention of parents, teachers, counselors and community leaders, in cooperation with fire and law enforcement officers.

Question: How can we help children understand their interests in fire?

Answer: Curiosity and the drive to learn are critical to a child's growth and development. Young children learn by exploring, experimenting and mimicking adult behavior. Unfortunately, when exploration, experimentation and imitation involve dangerous materials, such as matches and lighters, the result can be disastrous and even deadly. Fire interest is common among children and often begins by the age of 3. As a culture, we share and cultivate the enjoyment of fire with our children from an early age.

All children should be taught that matches and lighters are tools, not toys, and that fire is dangerous. Always keep matches and lighters up high, out of reach of children, preferably in a locked cabinet. Never leave a child alone with a burning candle, cooking fire, fireplace fire, campfire, barbecue or any open flame. Older children should be taught, with adult supervision, to use fire properly. Have them help you use fire responsibly through such safe activities as blowing out candles or putting charcoal in a barbecue grill before lighting it. Don't try to scare children away from fire. Teach them to respect it.

Being a parent is a physically and emotionally demanding job. Among other difficult decisions, parents at times find themselves in a position of needing to decide if their child's fire play or fire setting necessitates professional intervention.

If your child plays with matches or lighters and doesn't respond to your efforts to redirect his or her interests, the child may benefit from professional counseling. Parents who suspect or find evidence that their child is setting even very small fires should approach the child with concern for the potentially fatal consequences of fire setting.

For more information, contact CES, your local fire or police departments or area counseling services.

This column was provided by Central Emergency Services Fire Marshal Gary Hale. He can be reached at 231 S. Binkley St., Soldotna, AK 99669 or by e-mail at To submit a question for area law enforcement or emergency services, write to the Peninsula Clarion at P.O. Box 3009, Kenai, AK 99611 or at

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