What is Firesetting?

While it seems difficult to believe, playing with fire remained the reason for over 11%, or over 2,500 cases, of fires in 20/21.[1]

The well-used phrase, ‘playing with fire’ actually describes the phenomena of firesetting, which if left untreated can end with deadly consequences.

What is firesetting?

As defined by the London Fire Brigade, firesetting is ‘deliberately starting fires, or playing with fire. This can seem relatively harmless – a fascination with candles or matches, for example – but left unchecked can escalate.’[2]

‘Children and young people can start to play with fire for various reasons, ranging from natural curiosity […] to express[ing] feelings of anger or emotional distress.’ However, research ‘has shown that as many as one in two children will go on and repeat the behaviour without intervention.’[3]

Due to the links to arson and pathology, it is important to understand that ‘intentional firesetting is not always a symptom of underlying psychiatric pathology, nor is it always a criminal act.’[4]

In children, it is more likely to be down to curiosity, as an ‘interest in fire is nearly universal, and firesetting is often due to curiosity in this age group,’[5] rather than as a symptom of an underlying psychiatric problem. However, as we touched on above, in older children it can be a way for them to express difficult emotions they are struggling with.[6]

A firesetting leaflet from Avon Fire & Rescue that outlines lots of ways to help a firesetter. With an image of a child starting a fire.
Firesetting leaflet from Avon Fire & Rescue

Why the personal interest in Firesetting?

My interest in firesetting is rooted in deeply personal experiences.

My maternal side of the family has always been troubled by childhood firesetting.

My mother’s cousin, Joanne, lost two of her four children in a house fire. While trying to rescue them, she injured herself so badly that she lost her lower legs and was confined to a wheelchair, up until the day she died in 2020.

The fire that night was tragically started by one of Joanne’s children, a child who had been playing with matches.

As such, whenever we met up with Joanne or she came up in conversation, we were forcibly reminded of the tragedy of that moment of her life, and how it later went on to shape the lives of her whole family.

However, for my immediate family firesetting also took place behind our own front door.

As my brother grew up, he exhibited that usual childhood fascination with fire. He always wanted to barbecue, he wanted to light candles, and he always wanted to light the camping stove on holiday.

But he would also steal lighters and matches, set small fires in bins, burn papers, and when we were staying with friends on holiday in Tunisia, he set fire to their kitchen floor while everyone was sleeping.

If it were not for a friend waking up, the whole house could have burned down. While we slept.

As you can imagine, after this, efforts were made to remove anything that could be burned, for example, candles and gas stoves, and we all held our breaths and tried to supervise my brother at a discreet distance at family barbecues.

But the true extent of my brother’s fascination with fire was hidden from me.

Until last week I did not know he set that fire in our friend’s kitchen and was clueless about the potential outcome of that night.

Other families, like Joanne’s, are not as lucky as we were and live with the effects of childhood firesetting for the rest of their lives.[7]

St Helens Community Fire Station, which is grey and red with a fire engine parked outside on a bright sunny day.
St Helens Community Fire Station

How can I help a firesetter?

‘Without guidance and support firesetting behaviour can increase and could lead to serious property damage or personal injury and a criminal conviction. Those who are convicted through fire related crime are deemed as arsonists.’[8]

Step One: identify that you are dealing with a firesetter.

While all fires should be taken seriously, it is important to discover if the situation you are examining is the result of a one-off accident or is part of multiple firesetting incidents.

7 tell-tale signs of firesetting

1. Small burn holes in carpets or clothes.

2. Charred paper in sinks or wastebaskets.

3. Matches or lighters hidden in your child’s cupboards and drawers or under their bed.

4. An unusual fascination with fires.

5. Unexplained burnt objects in the home or garden.

6. Signs of burns on windowsills.

7. The smell of smoke on the child’s clothes or in the home.[9]

Step Two: contact your local fire brigade.

Many fire brigades across the UK now offer training courses and support for their local community to help the firesetter and their families.

To find details about your local fire station, click here.

These educational courses are designed to increase education around the dangers of fire, the consequences of fire, and may try to establish a cause behind the young person’s actions.

Contacting your local fire brigade on their non-emergency number is the best way to gain access to these courses and will allow you to protect your children, young people, and your home from the very real dangers of firesetting. [10]

Prescot Community Fire & Police station, which is half grey and half red in the background on a sunny day with an autumnal bare tree in the foreground.
Prescot Community Fire & Police station

Once children and young people are appropriately supported and receive training on how to be fire safe, the likelihood is that they will not fall into this pattern of firesetting behaviour again.

But as with all things, risks can only be managed if they are identified.

As 50% of children will continue to set fires without intervention, primary caregivers should ensure they are alert to this issue, lest they feel comfortable risking their lives at such large odds.

____________________________________________________________________________ [1] Data from Home Office Statistics, Detailed analysis of fires attended by FRSs,’ responsible statistician Deborah Lader, published 30.09.2022, table 0601. [2] London Fire Brigade, ‘Why do children set fires?’ <https://www.london-fire.gov.uk/community/young-people/worried-about-someone-setting-fires/why-do-children-set-fires-and-signs-to-watch-out-for/> 18.05.2022 [3] As above. [4] The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, ‘Firesetting, Arson, Pyromania, and the Forensic Mental Health Expert,’ by Dr Paul R. S. Burton, Dr Dale E. McNeil, and Dr Renée L. Binder, published September 2012, available online at <http://jaapl.org/content/40/3/355#:~:text=In%20the%20broadest%20sense%2C%20firesetting,it%20always%20a%20criminal%20act.> [5] Psychiatric Quarterly, ‘Who repeats? A follow- up study of state hospital patients’ firesetting behavior, by Jeffrey L. Geller M.D., M.P.H, William H. Fisher Ph.D., & Gregory Bertsch Ph. D, published June 1992, available online at <https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01065987> [6] Firesetters leaflet and information from The Firesetters Team, Avon Fire & Rescue Service, published 2015, <http://sites.southglos.gov.uk/safeguarding/wp-content/uploads/sites/221/2015/12/firesetters.pdf> [7] Image from Merseyfire.gov.uk, ‘St Helens Community Fire Station,’ <https://www.merseyfire.gov.uk/about/community-fire-stations/st-helens-community-fire-station/> 19.05.2022 [8] Avon Fire and Rescue, ‘Firesetter intervention scheme,’ <https://www.avonfire.gov.uk/safety-advice/advice-for-parents/firesetters> 18.05.2022 [9] London Fire Brigade, ‘Why do children set fires?’ <https://www.london-fire.gov.uk/community/young-people/worried-about-someone-setting-fires/why-do-children-set-fires-and-signs-to-watch-out-for/> 18.05.2022 [10] Image from Merseyfire.gov.uk, ‘Prescot Community Fire & Police Station,’ <https://www.merseyfire.gov.uk/about/community-fire-stations/prescot-community-fire-station/>19.05.2022

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