Juvenile Firesetter Program

The Scotts Valley Fire Protection District Juvenile Firesetter Program is available to help juvenile firesetters and their families receive the help they need through education, assessment, and psychological services.

The SVFPD Juvenile Firesetter Program provides many educational tools as well as presents guest speakers from the following departments and agencies:

  • Santa Cruz County Probation
  • Mental Health
  • Valley Medical Burn Center

The Problem: Fires & Fireplay

Firesetting behavior is a growing problem in the United States with over 1 million fires set each year by children. These children range in age from toddlers through late adolescents and come from all socioeconomic groups, all cultures and all family structures. One in seven deaths, due to arson, is set by a child under 15 years of age. This growing problem requires community action through the coordination among fire agencies, schools, burn centers, juvenile justice, and mental health services.

Who Sets Fires, and Why?

Nationwide, children are responsible for 54 percent of all arson fires. 60 percent of the children who set fires are considered curious with a natural desire to experiment. These are usually younger children who act without thought t the danger involved. Some children may act out of boredom, looking for something to do. Some of these children may have other problems such as Attention Defecit Hyperactive Disorder, which would contribute to impulsive behavior. The remaining 40 percent of children are often older, usually males who have other problems of a psychological nature sometimes as a result of family, school, or social difficulties. Some of these children or adolescents have intense feelings of powerless and anger that can lead to firesetting.

How to Prevent Firesetting

Take the time to teach your children about the potential destruction of fire. (It only takes minutes for a whole house to burn down and only seconds to have severe, permanent, physical damage as a result of burns.)

Younger Children: Children 5 years old and under when involved in firesetting almost always do so due to curiosity. Teach young children that a match is a tool and not a toy. Keep matches, lighters, and heat producing appliances out of the reach of children. Teach young children to tell an adult if they find matches or a lighter. Reward them for doing so.

Older Children: Children 6 to 12 years old when involved in firesetting may be curious about fire or may have serious problems resulting in firesetting. Set the example for fire safety: Have your children watch the way you cook (i.e. turning pot handles away from reach), the way you light a fire or candles, and the care you show in teaching them that these tasks must be performed only by adults or children under adult supervision.

Adolescents: Children 13 to 17 years of age rarely set fires due to curiosity. Teach and model for your adolescent conflict and stress management skills. Be available for regular communication. Involve your adolescent in decisions that affect her or him. Provide your adolescent with healthy activities (i.e. church, youth group, or sports). Encourage positive relationships with peers and adults.

Teaching Your Child About Fire

(Without Getting Burned)


Curiosity is a vital part of a healthy childhood. Children are naturally very curious about fire. When children are curious about something, they often “play” with it in order to learn about it. Last year, thousands of children “played” with matches. Only, they didn’t learn anything. They died.

Fire is the leading cause of death in the home for young children in the U.S. Tragically, one third of the children who died in home fires last year actually set the fires that killed them. Burns are also a major cause of accidental death for young children in our country, many of who are burned when playing with matches or lighters.

What’s most tragic about these deaths is that almost all of them could have been prevented. How? By teaching fire safety in the home. The information on this web site can help you teach your children about fire so that they, and you, don’t get burned.

How do I know that my child is curious about fire?

He may ask you questions, or he may stare at the fire, or point to or try to touch matches and lighters, or he may run to the window when fire trucks race by. But why wait for signs? Whenever you use fire, teach your child about it.

“What if my child has already begun experimenting with fire?”

Calmly, but firmly, explain that this is not an acceptable way to learn about fire. Explain—but do not overemphasize—the seriousness and danger of playing with fire and immediately begin teaching your child about the safe way to learn about fire.

“Someone said that if I burn his fingertips he’d learn the dangers.”

This is simply incorrect. It’s also child abuse. Burning your child will only injure him. It will not teach him anything positive about fire. It may even give him the dangerous idea to use fire in anger. Instead, try the 3-step plan outlined below

Meeting Curiosity With A Positive Approach


— A 3-Step Plan —


“What is fire?”

  • Fire is a strong natural force, like wind, water or electrical power, which produces heat. Like all energy sources, fire is a tool we use in our everyday lives: cooking food, heating homes, powering cars, and lighting candles are just a few examples of ways we use fire as a tool. Fire can be extremely dangerous, because the heat it produces can quickly get out of control if not handled properly. Because of this danger to people and property, adults should only use fire. Even adults must carefully follow special safety rules whenever they use fire. Fire is useful, but it is not magic. It is powerful, but it is practical when used wisely. Its fascinating process, but its also a part of everyday life. It is not a toy, and young children should never be allowed to use it like one. This is the lesson you should teach your child about fire.


“What are these for?”

  • Matches and lighters are the tools we use to make fires. Only adults must handle them. They can start fires and so even adults must follow safety rules whenever they use matches or lighters.

“Can I play with them?”

  • We all know about curiosity and the cat…keep matches and lighters up and out of the reach of curious young children.

“I want to help!”

  • Assign a curious child the job of telling you whenever they see carelessly discarded matches or lighters.
  • Older children can be allowed to bring these items to adults for proper storage.

“I want to do that…”

  • Whenever you use fire, let your curious child help you to make it safe
  • Let him get the pot holders and pan lids and check to make certain nothing is too close to the gas flame.
  • Let her get the newspaper for the wood stove or fireplace; let her hold a water-filled saucer to douse the spent matches.
  • Let him make certain nothing is blocking heating vents.
  • Let her check the base or holder before you light a candle.

What if no one’s watching?”

  • Never leave cooking fires unattended.
  • Always make certain an adult is watching the fireplace or wood stove.


Children learn by watching and imitating adults. Make sure your children have a good example to follow. Let your child learn from you the importance of following safety rules whenever fire is used. Take advantage of these times to emphasize the precautions you use.

Cooking: You can make safety a part of every recipe by wearing tight-fitting sleeves, using pot holders and pan lids, turning pan handles in, keeping the stove area clean of easily combustible materials.

Heating: Have your heating system cleaned and inspected and keep all vents clear, store flammable liquids far away from a furnace, use a screen for your fireplace and make sure your wood stove is properly installed and vented.

Smoking: Keep matches and lighters above the strike zone, use safe ashtrays, carefully dispose of ashes, never allow children to light cigarettes or pipes, never “play tricks” with a lighter or matches.

Never let anyone use matches or lighters in an unsafe way in front of your child. Make certain all adults follow this rule in your home.


Family Fire Safety Ideas


  • Install smoke detectors, check the batteries every month, and vacuum them regularly to keep them working.
  • Plan and practice a home fire escape plan, chose a meeting place outside your home.
  • Learn how to get emergency help in your community, and teach your children how to call for help.
  • Have regular home fire inspections. Contact your local fire department to learn about how you can rid your home of common fire hazards.
  • Keep your hot water heater at 120 or below to prevent scalds.

What Every Parent Should Know About Juvenile Fire Behavior


Fire behavior is a naturally occurring developmental stage in children. It emerges in most children around the age of three. There are three distinct levels: Fire Interest, Firestarting, and Firesetting.


  • Children express their interest in a number of ways.
  • A question such as how hot a fire is or what makes a fire burn.
  • They may wear fire hats, play with toy fire trucks, and cook food on their toy stoves.

This type of play is healthy and provides children with ways to explore and understand fire as a productive and useful part of their lives. It also represents the first signal to parents that it is time to educate their children about fire.


  • Most are young boys between the ages of three and nine.
  • Firestarts are unplanned single episodes motivated by curiosity or experimentation.
  • Resulting fires may be accidental.
  • Available matches or lighters are used and there is no specific material or target ignited with the intention to destroy or harm.
  • Attempts are made to extinguish the fire or call for help.
  • Feelings of guilt or remorse occur after the incident.


  • Firesetting consists of a series of planned firestarts that take place over several weeks, months, or even years.
  • These fires can be motivated by a number of different reasons including anger, revenge, attention seeking, malicious mischief, crime concealment, and intention to destroy or harm property and/or people.
  • Once the fire is started, the firesetter will rarely make an attempt to extinguish it.
  • He may run away to a safe spot, often to watch the fire burn, and possibly return later to view the destruction.

Firestarting and Firesetting

HistorySingle episodeRepeated
Ignition SourceAvailableCollected
BehaviorExtinguish fireRun away

Four Firesetting Behavior- Typical Profiles

Curiosity: Males, 3-7, with poor impulse control or hyperactivity, who are very curious and learn by doing, intend no harm or damage, and may seek help or try to extinguish fire.

Crisis: Males, 5-15, often intends damage. The object of the fire may be symbolic, related to family stressors. Child may have psychiatric symptoms, history of impulsive or aggressive behavior, poor self-esteem and poor coping skills.

Delinquent: Males or females, 10-16, who set fires in conjunction with their peers, usually in a “crisis profile” for years, may want to harm others or destroy property. Experimentation with accelerant’s is likely, as is a history of defying authority, possible gang involvement, cruel behavior without remorse, and a refusal to take responsibility for actions.

Pathological: Males, 12 – adulthood, who collect fire tools and have a repetitive firesetting pattern, are destructive of their own and others’ property, have poor peer and inter-personal skills, perform poorly in school, have a history of aggressive behavior, tend to blame others, and have a chaotic family life. May include psychiatric illness, history of physical or sexual abuse, and low self-esteem masked by narcissism.

“It’s As If He Were Making A Cry For Help…”

Children and fire…a dangerous combination. Tragically, it’s just such a combination that is responsible for an increasing number of fires. Fire is the leading cause of death in the home for young children in this country, and a third of the children who died in home fires last year started the fires that killed them.

Many cases of juvenile firesetting begin with a child’s curiosity about the world. Fire is one of the most fascinating and powerful elements of a child’s world. When there is too much stress in a child’s world, he or she may be drawn to fire for reasons beyond curiosity. A child, who feels helpless or unable to cope with a crisis, can be attracted to the power of fire. This child will start fires as a way of expressing this fear, confusion, or anger. We call this behavior “crisis firesetting.”

Get the Right Kind of Help

Firesetting is often a complex behavior. Children who tend to act out their fears and anger often have genuine difficulty talking about themselves and their feelings. For this reason, traditional “tell-me-how-you-feel” therapy usually won’t work. There are specialized programs available, which combine fire education with innovative therapies