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Playing with Fire

Posted by Mike on 11/1/2007 to Local News

38,000 acres.  21 homes destroyed.  15 homes damaged.  45 other structures destroyed or damaged.  1 ten year old boy.

The heated debate has already begun on what form of punishment, if any, is appropriate for the young Agua Dulce boy who accidentally started the raging “Buckwheat Fire” on October 21 while playing with matches on the property 30 feet behind the trailer where he lived with his parents.    By all accounts, he is not a problem child, and did nothing that many young boys don’t do at some time or another – experiment with fire.  His intent was not to set a huge blaze, and he admitted his wrongdoing to firefighters the next day, showing great remorse.   So we are not talking about a bad seed here.  But we are talking about a situation that imperiled the lives of tens of thousands of people, and destroyed many homes.  And thus the debate. 

Innocent, curious behavior, rimmed with some level of carelessness sparked a major disaster and devastated the lives of many families.  It will take some time for the impacted families to rebuild to get somewhat back to where they were before.  But they will never get all of the way back.  Fires that gut homes cause irreparable damage, both emotionally and through the special heirlooms and documents lost that can never be replaced.  How do you set the punishment for that?  Do you look more at the apparent accidental nature of the blaze, or at the repercussions of the reckless act?

Insurance companies and families impacted by the fires will likely sue.  But the family at the middle of the proverbial firestorm does not seem to have much in the way of assets.  They lived in a trailer on the backside of the Carousel Ranch property where the father worked as a caretaker.   Until now, theirs was a simple life.  And while they will likely remain simple in what they have, their daily routines and what they worry about will be weighed more heavily than most of us can imagine.  The financial attacks, complications and pressures they must now endure will live with them forever.  To what degree is it right to squeeze those who already have little as an act of punishment? 

Carousel Ranch is a non-profit organization that has established itself over the last 10 years by providing custom tailored, developmental therapeutic and recreational equestrian programs for disabled and disadvantaged kids.    The father of the young boy has been described as a “good guy” and the people as a “quiet family”.    Living on the ranch, everyday, the family witnesses first-hand the emotional struggles faced by families with various life-long afflictions.   And now, in a flash, a life-long burden has been thrust onto their shoulders.  The question is how heavy that burden should be.

Many argue that both the boy and his parents need to be punished to set an example, and the fact it was an accident and the fact that the family has limited financial resources should not get in the way of that.  They will argue that the boy also needs to be severely punished and imprisoned so he will not forget what he did, and so that others will think twice before they engage in activities in the future that might have similar consequences.  As for the accidental nature of the fire, they say that every situation will have its own share of extenuating circumstances, and continuously looking away and failing to establish some level of accountability will only breed more recklessness in society.   One report on the news stated that more than 50% of California fires are set by adolescents.  That is a huge number, and suggests that strong action is needed. 

But what strong action is right?   I think there are three facets of accountability to be addressed.  First is  for the boy who set the fire.  Should he be sent to a juvenile detention center, or be made a ward of the court and sent to a foster home?   Well, if the early indications of his character are true, both of these options would be counter-productive.  What you never want to do is to take a good kid and put him in a situation to “rehabilitate” him and turn him in to a bad kid.   You really need to take a close look at intent in this situation;  if there was no intent to cause harm, there is nothing to rehabilitate.   But that does not mean that the boy should not endure some level of punishment and be put in a situation to learn a lesson.

Perhaps, eight years of community service (until he turns 18), in an escalating number of hours per month each year, would serve notice on him and others.  Then, when he turns 18, make him speak at one school per month for another 10 years about fire safety and dangers, and apply some form of attachment to his wages for 10 years, with moneys going to a fire victims fund.   Of course, no amount of money you would collect from him would come close to the financial losses incurred by the fire, but it would make him make him think about what he did.  And it will put him in the right mindset to convince other young kids of the inherit dangers and consequences of playing with matches.

The parents also need to sustain some form of punishment, in part as a message to other parents.  But we should not try to bankrupt them.   Maybe, they should also be required to speak at schools, perhaps at PTA meetings, for several years about fire dangers.  And attach 10% of their wages for 8 years for the fire victims fund.       

Lastly, accountability goes to the education system.  Sending a message, in essence, is educating someone about the consequences of actions.   That message should be sent on a regular basis by every school system in the state of California.  Every year, October should be anointed Fire Safety Month.  And every school should be required to have a program to convey to all students the dangers of fire, as well as emergency procedures to be implemented in their homes, etc.  If we engrain in our children, on an ongoing basis, that playing with fire is literally playing with fire, the numbers of fires started by kids is bound to drop.  The truth is that even bad kids are not all bad, and rare is the time that the youthful “arsonist” intends a fire to explode in uncontrollable fury.  The more we can get all kids to realize this possibility, the more likely they are to think twice about playing with matches.   And at the end of the day, that is a result we should satisfy all of us.

Mike Lee