The Zabel family rushed from room to room, searching for flames as the smell of smoke wafted through their home.
When June Zabel finally realized the smoke was coming from her 9-year-old son’s bedroom, she was frightened, angry and confused.
“I was crying and I was just devastated,” she said. “I thought ‘What if he burned down the house?”’
As it turned out, her son Zachary burned only his coloring papers. But June Zabel knew her son and her six other children could have been hurt or killed.
She also knew Zachary had a fascination with fire, much like his father did when he was young.
“I thought, I’ve got to get this fixed,” she said.
So she turned to the Hayden Lake Fire District.
Kootenai County fire officials say they are discovering more and more blazes started by children.
In Hayden, the Fire Department responded to four fires started by children in 1994. Already this year, it has doused nine such fires.
The Coeur d’Alene Fire Department responded to 13 such fires in 1994. That number has grown to 24 so far this year. During one week in June, a 5-year-old boy and a 6-year-old boy each torched part of a house.
Several Kootenai County fire departments are fighting the trend with programs designed to prevent young fire starters from setting another blaze.
So far, the results have been good. None of the children who have gone through these programs has been caught starting another fire.
“I’m pretty passionate about this because I like kids,” said Kenneth Gabriel, the Coeur d’Alene Fire Department’s public education coordinator.
A gentle-looking giant at 6-foot-5, he said his biggest fear as a firefighter is pulling a burned child from a blaze.
His Youth Fire Center program is 2 years old; already this year, 16 children have gone through it. Any child who starts a fire that the police and Fire Department respond to is required to go through the course.
The program typically consists of two hourlong sessions to be attended by both the child and parents.
Gwenn Stone of the Hayden Lake Fire District and Ramona Baker of the Post Falls Fire District run similar programs.
The fire-prevention educators first try to determine why the child started the fire. Then they conduct activities with each child, teaching the child to distinguish fire materials from toys. They even send homework home for parents and child to do together.
All three fire officials say curiosity is the most common reason children start fires.
Zachary said he thought it might look “cool” to burn his coloring papers. He had taken some matches his father uses to light a pipe and had hidden them in his room.
But Zachary said that on the night of the fire, he also was angry at his parents, who had sent him to his room for the evening.
Hopping out of bed, he lit the papers on fire.
“I sat there and watched it burn, and then I thought, ‘Whoa, that flame is getting big,”’ he said, explaining how he quickly blew the fire out and hopped back in bed.
When he heard the rest of his family hunting for the source of the smoke, “I was like ‘Oh no, I’m in trouble,”’ he said.
Quite a few blazes have been started when children tramp into a field and try to start a “campfire,” just as they have seen their parents do on camping trips, Gabriel said.
There also are “delinquent fire setters.”
“They’re the ones who are crying out,” Gabriel said. “It’s a means for letting their emotions out.”
Stone said children often start fires for attention or because there is trouble or change within the family.
One child Gabriel dealt with was so upset his aunt had moved into the home that he ignited a closet full of her clothes.
No matter the reason why a child started a fire, the blaze can be traumatic for both the child and the parents.
Michael Veneroso, 6, was terrified to go upstairs in his Coeur d’Alene home after accidentally having torched the second floor while playing with matches. The soot- and smoke-blackened walls left the little boy terrified, his mother said.
“For the most part, the children are sorry and they’re embarrassed about it,” Stone said.
The younger children may withdraw, Gabriel said. The “controlled chaos” of firefighters running about, spraying water and ripping through a house to put out the blaze, can be overwhelming, he said.
“It seems to me like there is sometimes more emotional impact on the parents,” Gabriel said. “Parents don’t understand why their child would do such a thing.”
Other parents are in denial, believing their child couldn’t do such a thing, Baker said.
June Zabel thought she had taught her son better than to play with fire.
“I was scared, very scared, and I was disappointed,” she said from her Hayden home.
So she took her son to Stone, who put Zachary through her program at the Hayden Lake Fire District.
Stone, whose office is filled with child-sized firefighter hats, stuffed firefighting bears and a miniature toy fire station, asked the boy to sort through a box that contained matches, lighters and toys. She asked him to show her which items are OK for kids to play with and which aren’t.
She had Zachary do homework, too, asking him to draw a picture showing the danger of fire.
Stone said she also has parents put books of matches around the house and then carefully watch to see whether their child plays with the matches or returns them.
The parent is supposed to give the child verbal praise and a hug if the child returns the item.
Zachary Zabel said he was especially interested in a video he watched about two kids who played with fire. In the end, one of the children died.
“After I heard the kid died, I got real serious,” Zachary said, his face drawn straight. “Someone could die.”
These courses are not the end of the road for all the children. The fire educators refer some children to professional counseling for more in-depth help.
But June Zabel said the class has put her mind at ease. Her son insists he has learned his lesson and never will play with matches again.
Instead, Zachary says, he wants to grow up to be a firefighter.
“That way,” he said, “I could prevent them instead of start them.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color); Graphic: Kids and fire
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HOW TO PUT OUT A CHILD’S FASCINATION WITH FIRE Fires started by children injured nine people and killed three kids in Idaho last year, according to the state fire marshal’s office. And juveniles accounted for 49 percent of all arson arrests in 1993, according to the national Fire Protection Association. With such statistics, fire prevention educators say parents should watch for the following signs that a child might be interested in fire: Matches and lighters are missing. Finding small burn marks around the house or on a child’s fingers. Smelling smoke or sulfer in the child’s bedroom. Finding matches or lighters in the bedrooms. Secrecy. Finding matches flicked in the driveway. Finding small piles of burnt leaves or paper around the yard. The following are some tips fire educators suggest to prevent children from playing with fire: Take the mystery out of fire by allowing a child to start a campfire under close adult supervision, put the campfire out or light candles on a birthday cake. Teach children fire is a tool for adults, not a toy for children. Do not use novelty lighters that may look like toys. Use child-resistant lighters, which are available in most stores. Keep matches and lighters well out of reach. Parents who are concerned their children may be playing with fire can call their local fire department or these fire prevention educators for free fire safety education: Kenneth Gabriel at the Coeur d’Alene Fire Department: 769-2340. Gwenn Stone at the Hayden Lake Fire District: 772-5711. Ramona Baker at the Post Falls Fire Protection District: 773-2922. - Winda Benedetti
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