On Sunday, a Colorado Springs "juvenile male" said to be playing with matches set his bedroom on fire, after which he was arrested for fourth-degree arson. Unusual? Less so than you might think. Last year, the city saw 39 significant fire incidents involving minors and twelve arrests requiring the resources of a nationally known Springs program designed to deal with this under-reported issue.
Around 8:31 p.m. on Sunday, according to the Colorado Springs Police blotter, the department's communication center received a call about a structure fire with people trapped inside at a house on the 1300 block of Delaware Drive. When members of the police and fire department arrived, they discovered that several of those living in the home were developmentally disabled and didn't fully understand that they were in danger. For that reason, they had to be evacuated before the fire could be addressed. One of the residents, an adult woman, was transported to a local hospital, where she was treated for smoke inhalation and released.
As for the fire itself, it was rather modest -- a blaze that got going in a pile of clothing and was quickly extinguished. But if the spark that started it was really as a result of a child under the age of eighteen "playing with matches," as the blotter stated, isn't an arson charge excessive? Colorado Springs Fire Department spokeswoman Sunny Smaldino offers an emphatic "no," but she understands the confusion.
"We don't use the word 'play,' as in 'playing with matches,'" she says. "We're trying to get rid of that term -- because this is really a big problem."
Due to the age of the youngster in the most recent incident, Smaldino can't talk about specifics in the case beyond noting that a number of people were endangered and ultimately displaced by the fire and the child in question was thoroughly interviewed and evaluated before any charges came down.
Speaking more generally, though, she points out that most children who start fires "aren't doing it out of curiosity, but because something's happened in their lives, be it a small trauma, a large trauma, stresses, bullying. Fire's an instant gratification for them. They think they have control of it, and that's what they're trying to do -- get some control in their lives. But sometimes it gets out of hand, and that's when they get injured.
"Every child who's set a fire has set ten more that they haven't been caught setting," she goes on. "They get a little bit more bold with each attempt. They think, 'I didn't get hurt this time, so I'll try it again, but now I'm going to add something...maybe go on YouTube. So this is something we take very seriously."
Hence, the creation of FireFactor, a CSFD education program that works with children who start fires -- and there are plenty of them.
"We see about 200 juveniles go through our program each year," she notes. "Last year, there were 39 significant incidents involving juveniles misusing fire, twelve arrests and over $600,000 in property loss that was incurred because of juveniles setting fires."
Of those in the program, Smaldino says that about 40 percent of them are already receiving mental-health care when they get involved with FireFactor, or they're referred to such treatment during or afterward. Moreover, that number is rising. "It was 30 percent," she says, adding that the issue "hits all income levels, all demographics. You can have a very wealthy child being bullied at school act out by setting a fire, or you can have a very impoverished child who's being abused act out in the same way. You can't target it. You can't say, 'I only need to talk to this one group of kids.'"
With that in mind, FireFactor makes presentations at schools throughout the Colorado Springs area, often at the fifth and sixth grade levels -- an age at which many firestarters first begin to experiment. Staffers also work hands-on with kids put into the program, and the results have been impressive. Smaldino notes that "over the past ten years, we've had a return rate on kids of less than 1 percent."
Numbers like those have gotten the attention of authorities in cities across the country; Smaldino says FireFactor personnel have taken part in trainings "from South Carolina to Texas to California."
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For those who've started fires, Smaldino stresses that one size doesn't fit all. "We go through an assessment process with every child that comes into our program to determine if an educational class is appropriate, or if they need mental or behavioral help that they're not getting.
"Some of these kids made a bad choice or did something stupid," she goes on. "But a lot of them never had any help. And we're here to help them."
More from our News archive: "Jacob Christenson, age 11, facing arson trial in Parker over fire that 'just happened.'"