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Prevention First 2004

Children and Fire:

Frequently Asked Questions

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Why are children fascinated by fire?

It's not surprising that fire captures the interest of children—and adults too! Fire is colorful and dynamic. Its movement is gentle and soothing. From a child’s point of view, fire seems the perfect toy: colorful, animated, and responsive. It also seems comforting, warm, and helpful. It lights our birthday cakes and holidays, cooks our meals, and warms us at campfires.


How common is children’s fireplay?

Research across a number of communities and over time has been consistent: 

More than half of children have played with fire by the time they were out of elementary school. More than 80% had played with fire by the time they were in high school.


Is the number of fires set by children going up?
No. Due to the introduction of the child-resistant lighter and better education, there has been a steady decline in the number of child-set fires. Over the past 30 years, the number of these fires has dropped 82% from 250,000 to 45,500. There has also been a slightly more modest 67% decline in the number of deaths and injuries resulting from these fires, from 2750 to 910.

What kind of children start fires?

Fires are set by children of all ages, some as young as 2 years old. More than half of the children who start fires are between the ages of 4 and 9. As children get older, the frequency of child-started fires gets smaller. Boys set more fires than girls: between 75%  - 90% of fires reported to the fire service. This is consistent with other types of risk-taking behavior: Boys tend to take more risks than girls, and suffer a higher number of unintentional injuries.


No single racial or ethnic group of children is more involved in fireplay or firesetting than any other  They tend to reflect the racial and ethnic mix of their communities.


Should I be worried if my child played with fire?

Children's fireplay should be taken seriously. Even when started without any intention to do harm, fires set by children can cause serious damage and injury.


Typically, fireplay is not a sign of an emotional problem. Young children just don't understand the consequences, and older children overestimate their ability to control fire. In research conducted in Rochester, New York, we found that 9 out of 10 children who started a fire that was reported to the fire department never started another. Once they see the consequences of their actions, the vast majority of children don’t do it again.


If you child persists in experimenting with fire even after you have set clear rules (see below), talk to your family doctor or a counselor.


How can I keep my child from playing with fire?

Keep matches and lighters out of sight and reach, even child-resistant lighters. Lighters of any sort should never be left out

Be aware of your own behavior with fire. Leaving a stove, campfire, grill or candles unattended creates a hazard and sends a message--that fire needn't be treated seriously. Ignoring the smoke alarm, or looking for the source of smoke instead of urging everyone to get out when the alarm sounds, sends a message that smoke and its cause isn't serious.

Supervise children at home as well as outside. Many adults assume children are safe when they are in their own home. In fact this is where most of the fires set by young children are started, most often in bedrooms or closets. Parents need to both monitor their children, and restrict access to ignition materials.

Stick to clear rules about fire. Firmly tell children that matches and lighters are tools for adults only. Children should tell an adult if they find these materials left lying around. Be clear and consistent. Many children will assume that if they're allowed to do something with adult supervision, it's really all right for them to do the same thing when alone. Many cooking fires start this way.

When are children old enough to be allowed to use matches and lighters?

Think about at what age you would consider someone responsible enough to babysit your children. Most people want a sitter who is older than elementary school age, because they want someone who can respond if something unexpected happens. Elementary school children are not good at anticipating what might go wrong and how to respond if something does, such as if grease from cooking catches on fire.


The Babysitting Training Courses sanctioned by the American Red Cross and the National Safety Council are designed for 11-to-15-year-olds, setting a national standard concerning the age of responsibility.

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