Rochester Science

Kids and fire: teen arsons are more common than you think

The tragic arson in Webster has everyone I talk to asking the same question: why? Why would a kid do such a destructive thing? According to MPN, the 15 year-old boy who allegedly set the blaze actually poured gasoline throughout the house before setting the match. The resulting fire killed his adoptive father and two brothers. The whole family – including his sister and mother – was in the house at the time.

But as it turns out, teen arsonists are in fact much more common than you might have expected. According to a 1998 report (PDF) by the US Fire Administration, now a division of Homeland Security, fully half and as many as 52% of all arson arrests were kids under the age of 18 years. And of those, the most common age for non-accidental arson is between 13 and 14. The boy in question is just past this peak age at 15.

The majority of the arrests studied in the report were for acts committed on non-occupied structures – either outdoor arson or abandoned buildings. But around 26% of those studied arrests happened on occupied properties such as homes. So, again: the acts of this kid, if proven, are horrifying certainly but not as rare as we might wish them to be.

Every report notes that, while the statistics on arrested arsonists are certainly important, they are very incomplete for the simple reason that most arson is not reported. Fire-setting events that happen away from the public view and do not cause damage to property anybody feels compelled to report, for example, go unnoticed. The profile of an arson is, therefore, pretty sketchy at best.

But the nearly universal motivating factor in those cases where arrests are made seems to be one of anger. A report by Focus Adolescent Services points out that most teen arsonists have long histories of playing with fire before getting arrested, though it is important to point out that about half of all kids play with fire somewhere along the line and are not arsonists. They also point to turmoil, recent changes, drug and alcohol problems and the usual raft of troubles associated with people dealing with very serious issues without the benefit of professional help.

Its hard to imagine how a tragedy like this could possibly have a good outcome. But hopefully, this is an opportunity for our community to discuss what is a fairly hush-hush topic of teens, anger and fire. Every report or story I’ve read about teen arson says parents often prefer to keep things quiet or just don’t realize the serious dangers that a kid with an above-average affinity for fire might present for himself and others. Meanwhile, anger, anxiety and frustration that is common to all of us can sometimes spiral out of control in a society where, to this day, seeking psychological help is still viewed as a failing even though seeking medical help is not.