Va. firefighters warn of rise in juvenile arson

By Kathy Adams
The Virginian-Pilot

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Take an out-of-school juvenile in the wrong frame of mind. Add one part boredom and one part mischief. Remove parental supervision.

The result: a busy summer for the Fire Department.

Juvenile arson spikes when students are out of school, fire officials said. Summer vacation starts Friday for students in Virginia Beach.

"Once school gets out, we'll see a peak," said Keith Arnold, the department's life safety education supervisor. "A lot of times it's children. They're home, they're not as supervised as they need to be, they get into mischief. They get bored and they start experimenting with things."

But the juvenile arson problem isn't relegated to the summer months.

In 2000, compared with juveniles, there nearly four times as many adult arson arrests in Virginia Beach, according to statistics from the Police Department. While fire-setting has declined by 30 percent in the past eight years, juvenile are beginning to outpace those older than 18 when it comes to arson arrests.

"Juvenile cases across the country have been on the rise," said fire investigator Alana Cooper.

In the past two years in Virginia Beach, juvenile arson arrests have outpaced adult arrests nearly 2-to-1 , according to police statistics. In 2008, 20 juveniles and 10 adults were arrested for arson. The year before, there were 20 juvenile arrests and 13 adult arrests.

Kevin Newton, a Beach fire and arson investigator, attributes the change to several factors. Some have always existed, such as boredom, childhood curiosity and teenage mischief, he said. Some are newer, including declining parental involvement and the proliferation of information about explosives online, Newton said.

Most juvenile fires are small or accidental, such as brush fires or fires set by fireworks, he said.

For younger children, fire simply stokes their curiosity, Arnold said. For older youths, the motives can be different.

"The fire-setting in most cases is a symptom of something else that's going on," he said. "There's been a sudden change, they've lost a pet, they've lost a family member, they're getting ready to move and they don't want to."

In contrast, fires intentionally lit by adults are often more costly, Newton said. Motives include revenge and insurance fraud, he said.

To help discourage youths from setting fires, the department runs several education programs in local schools, Arnold said. The programs, which focus on fire prevention and safety, reached more than 22,000 children this school year, he said.

When people younger than 18 commit arson, the court can order them to complete the Fire Department's awareness course for teens. Fire investigators and parents can also refer teens , said Cooper, who runs the program.

The five-session course educates juveniles about the penal, financial and safety consequences of fire-setting, Cooper said. It includes a jail tour.

Last year, 52 teens completed the course, Cooper said.

"There are a lot of good kids out there that maybe make a bad decision," she said. "They didn't intend to hurt anybody . They didn't intend to destroy property."

But when they burn something or threaten to do so, she said, "it's criminal."

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