A ridiculously stupid mistake.
That’s what Emily Wilkins, 19, of Overland Park, calls her actions that led to a bathroom fire at Blue Valley Northwest High School about four years ago.
“A trash can got caught on fire because of a cigarette,” said Wilkins, who still gets embarrassed when she tells how she tossed the cigarette butt into a trash can.
As she headed back to class, the cigarette ignited the trash.
In addition to three days of in-school suspension, Wilkins had to attend the Juvenile Firesetter Program offered by the Overland Park Fire Department.
“It really made you think about the consequences and how fires are so unpredictable and how in just seconds it can explode into a huge mess,” Wilkins said.
Fires caused by children are a national problem — so much so that Arson Awareness Week, held in early May, focused on preventing youths from setting fires.
In the Kansas City area, a new effort is under way to better identify potential fire setters and provide effective treatment.
“We get kids that are just curious about fire, we get kids that came up with this ‘great idea’ and a fire accidentally resulted, or we get kids that have some real issues going on at home and they deal with it through fire setting,” said Tricia Roberts, public education specialist with the Overland Park Fire Department.
Meaningful local statistics are hard to come by, but Overland Park has seen more children involved with fire this year.
So far in 2012, Roberts said, 30 children are known to have been involved with fires in Overland Park. Not all will go into the department’s juvenile fire setter program. However, 18 young people have already completed the program.
That compares with seven children in the program in both 2011 and 2010. There were 11 in 2009 and 19 in 2008.
The program provides fire safety education for children from 2 to 18 years old. They meet one on one with fire officials for up to four weeks.
Not all children are referred to fire setting programs after a specific incident. Some are found to have a history of playing with fire, Roberts said.
In Wilkins’ case, it was just a careless act. Wilkins said she feels lucky to have gone through the program, even though the circumstances that led to it were not the best.
“I feel that it caused me to be a little more paranoid, but in a good way,” she said. “I’m more cautious about my actions and the actions of the people around me.”
The Kansas City Fire Department started looking at the juvenile fire setting problem more than 10 years ago after the U.S. Fire Administration identified it as a major public health issue.
“As we begin to take down the other causes of pediatric fire fatalities, one of the things that started to stand out heavily was the role that a kid unsupervised with access to an ignition source had in creating the fires,” said Richard Gist, principal assistant to Fire Chief Smokey Dyer.
To address the problem, the Kansas City Fire Department and the Heart of America Metro Fire Chiefs Council have teamed with the Clinical Child Psychology Program at the University of Kansas and The Family Conservancy.
The partnership is working on programs to identify children at risk of fire setting behavior and provide effective ways to prevent that through family intervention and treatment.
Eric Vernberg, a professor at the University of Kansas’s Clinical Child Psychology Program, said KU has been working with The Family Conservancy to briefly question children and their parents about fire involvement when the kids are referred for behavior or mental health services.
If there’s an indication that child has misused fire, “then we do some further questioning or interviewing with the child and the family to figure out how much of a risk is there,” Vernberg said.
Interviewers try to determine whether the behavior is innocent or if some serious problems exist that have not yet been detected.
“Most health service providers do not routinely ask about fire interests or fire involvement,” Vernberg said.
And if they did, he added, they might not know what to do next.
The partnership is trying to build a system in the Kansas City area where health providers can assess whether children are prone to setting fires and then provide treatment if needed.
Amy Gragg, a clinical program manager in the Independence office of The Family Conservancy, said it makes sense to be part of the effort because the conservancy serves the entire area.
“There are many facets to it,” Gragg said.
As with fighting fires, the goal is to catch problems while they are small.
“The kid who sets the rubbish fire today is the one who sets the vacant house tomorrow,” Gist said.