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Civic Inferno Points To Need To Prevent Youth-Caused Fires

The loss of Civic Stadium to a fast-burning fire June 29 is tragic to those who tried to save it and to those who have rich memories of the historic stadium. But, as Eugene Springfield Fire Operations Deputy Chief Joe Zaludek pointed out at a recent press conference, no one was injured in the fire or fighting it, which he called “amazing” for an incident of this magnitude. 

Compounding the tragedy is the age of the youths who are facing legal and, according to Oregon law, possible financial consequences. On July 6, Patty Perlow of the Lane County District Attorney’s Office announced that the four juveniles implicated in the fire at Civic Stadium are facing charges of arson 1, arson 2, two charges of burglary 2, criminal mischief 1, criminal mischief 2, reckless burning and reckless endangering. 

Perlow tells EW, “Additionally, two of the youths have additional charges for a separate fire incident of a Dumpster.”  She says the three 12-year-olds and one 10-year-old have a fact finding (similar to a bench trial in adult court) on Sept. 1. 

According to information for parents put out by the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office, “youth can be held responsible for restitution past the age of 18, and if the formal probation order includes a money judgment for any fees or restitution not paid by age 18, the money judgment can go on the individual’s credit record and remain in effect for seven years (age 25).” 

Parents can also be held responsible for some of the costs of restitution in juvenile cases, and civil penalties can also come into play for damages.

Krista Fischer of Oregon’s Youth Fire Prevention and Intervention Program says most of the state’s juvenile fires “are set by males, a little over 80 percent, and most are a result of a youth having access to matches and lighters.”

She says that boys in an age range from middle school to 15 set most juvenile fires in Oregon, and most fires are set at home, though they are also often seen in boys’ bathrooms at school or Dumpsters.

According to the National Fire Protection Association “between 2007 and 2011, an average of 49,300 fires involving playing with fire were reported to U.S. municipal fire departments per year.” These fires caused an average of 80 deaths a year. Fischer says the fire marshal is moving away from words like “play,” which indicate it’s an “OK-type behavior.”

She says the state uses a screening tool, developed in Oregon with the UO and used nationally, to assess if a youth needs fire education intervention or needs to be referred to other community agencies. 

According to Sandra Johnston, Eugene deputy fire marshal, one thing assessed is whether there is simply a lack of understanding of how fire behaves, simply curiosity, fascination or experimentation. She says that sometimes youth don’t have the ability to process stress or crisis stemming from things going on behind the scenes with  friends, family or school, and unfortunately fire is an accessible way of venting something.

Fischer says that the state fire marshal’s program is about safety education for parents and children and when it comes to stressors at home, developmental issues or other complications that cause kids to act out, dealing with that gets sent to school counselors, mental health counselors, or if it has progressed that far, the justice system. Some kids she says just succumb to peer pressure or make bad choices.

When it comes to preventing juvenile-set fires, Fischer says parents need to keep an eye on things like social media — kids see the “fire challenge” on YouTube, where people put gels and other substances on their body then light themselves on fire, and then copycat it. She says that parents “can really, really emphasize importance of fire safety” and should not use fire to amuse or entertain children. Many kids’ first experience with fire is the candles on their birthday cake, she says.

Johnston adds that between digital graphics in movies, video games and social media, kids have the misconception they can control fire. “Fire is a tool, not a toy,” she says, adding it “can be destructive when not respected.”

Johnston and Fischer say if a parent suspects a child has been misusing fire they can contact the Fire Marshal’s Office for help. “We are more than happy to work with families,” Johnston says. She says signs can include  excitement over or fascination with fire and noticing small burned patches on the rug or in brush around the house. She suggests locking up lighters and matches and installing extra smoke detectors in a house where a child is fascinated by fire. 

For more information contact Sandra.K.Johnston@ci.eugene.or.us.