When a blaze destroyed a Seat Pleasant home and killed six toddlers on Thanksgiving morning, no one wanted to think the unthinkable. Was the tragedy caused by children playing with fire? Investigators determined it had been. So had the Northwest Washington house fire that critically injured a 9-year-old and his infant sister in October. And the Fairfax County fire last January that took the life of a 5-year-old.

"The worst possible conclusion was the ultimate conclusion," Capt. Daniel Jarboe says of the fire in Seat Pleasant, where the combustible combination of kids and matches ignited nearby papers and upholstery in the living room before engulfing the house's entire ground floor. Jarboe has seen it before. The seasoned firefighter who commands Prince George's County's investigative division that conducted the inquiry knows the sad truth about so many fires that reduce dreams and homes to soot and ashes.

"Those children did no more than what other kids do on a regular basis," says Jarboe, explaining that the only difference was the devastating result. "Their initial act was no worse than many others that leave no injuries or damage. They are merely a part of a network of dangerous activity" across the nation that is largely kindled by childhood curiosity.

The deadly toll curiosity can take is both proverbial and statistical. Children under age 5 comprise only 8.8 percent of the U.S. population. But they represent 18.7 percent of all deaths caused by fire nationwide -- about twice the risk of dying in a fire than the general population -- according to the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit group based in Quincy, Mass. Not coincidentally, among those under age 5, fire is the leading cause of death in the home. And a disproportionately large number of those fatal fires start when a child picks up matches or a lighter.

"We have a national fire problem and it is a national disgrace," says Irene Pinsonneault, director of one of the country's most aggressive regional fire-setter intervention programs for children, headquartered at the Fire Fighters Memorial Museum in Fall River, Mass. In the past two years, Pinsonneault has worked with more than 250 youngsters from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island who have shown signs of an abnormal fascination with fire. That experience tells her most youngsters' burning desires are tied not only to carelessness but to our culture as well.

"Americans just tolerate a fire problem, even though most fires are preventable," she complains. "People are irresponsible and careless about fire."

Fire-safety experts agree that the past two generations of Americans relate to fire differently than earlier generations. Use of fire has become indirect and almost inadvertent. When fire had a critical presence in day-to-day home life, when hearths or coal-burning stoves were a home's source of heat and main cooking appliance, people learned to respect it and use it safely at a young age. Since electricity has replaced the necessary daily fire, attitudes toward it have grown lackadaisical, says Pinsonneault, and that has led to carelessness.

One of the common factors Pinsonneault recognizes in most of her cases is careless accessibility. "None of these children had to hunt for any ignition material," she says. "They all just got it off the coffee table. Even with the youngest ones who had set three to five fires, when I go into their homes to talk to the parents, there are the matches on the end table. There are a lot of parents who let kids flick the lighter. They don't seem to realize that one plus one almost always equals two."

Many fire-safety experts expect 1988 to be the year the nation finally wakes up and smells the smoke. "There has been a focus on knowing what the problem is," Pinsonneault says of the crisis. "Sometimes you don't want to open a can of worms, especially if there isn't a solution. {But} we have solutions."

Even the federal government last week took initial steps to defuse one fire-starting device that has proven deadly to children. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced on Thursday it would begin drafting standards that require the redesign of disposable cigarette lighters to make them "child-resistant."

According to the CPSC, of the 200 people who die each year in fires caused by cigarette lighters, 140 of them are children -- with the vast majority of those under age 4. During 1985, the CPSC estimates, of the 11,000 fires started by cigarette lighters, child's play accounted for 7,800 -- including 120 deaths, 860 injuries and $60.5 million in property damage.

Another report issued last November by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) determined that children aged 4 and younger proved "very proficient at operating lighters" -- possibly even more so than striking matches. Typical of the 244 accidents involving cigarette lighters that the CFA reviewed were these 1987 cases:

A 4-year-old Virginia girl tried to light a candle with a lighter and started a fire that razed her family's home.

A 4-year-old Texas boy ignited his bedding while playing with a disposable lighter. His 2-year-old brother died in the fire.

Three Kentucky boys, aged 2, 3 and 6, died of smoke inhalation when they ignited a couch with a disposable lighter.

Both reports concluded that young children -- girls and boys -- seem attracted to lighters because of their bright colors, their size, which fits into small hands, and the wheel that turns and makes sparks. As CFA product safety director Mary Ellen Fise warns, "You should have the same fear about your child playing with a cigarette lighter as you would their playing with an open bottle of medicine. Both can be deadly."

Yet the most dramatic gains in quelling the fire-setting urge among kids have been psychological, not technological. "We have in our culture the idea that fire-setting is pyromania -- that any kid who plays with fire is a sicko," says Pinsonneault. "But that's not it." Child fire-setters who are severely mentally disturbed account for only about 3 percent of child-related fires.

Pinsonneault reports 60 to 65 percent of the children she has counseled for starting fires over the past two years were simply playing with fire. She says the figure roughly reflects the findings by other fire intervention programs nationwide. "A lot of the children we work with are sort of Dennis the Menace types," explains Pinsonneault, who labels the largest group of juvenile fire-starters the Curiosity Child. "They're not bad kids but they're into everything. They're motivated by impulse, they lack supervision, and they've got access to matches or lighters."

For most families, the Curiosity Child is the only relevant group of child fire-setters, according to Wayne S. Wooden, a California State Polytechnic University sociologist and coauthor of Children and Arson: America's Middle Class Nightmare. In a Psychology Today article about his mid-'80s study of 100 juvenile fire-setters, Wooden describes them as younger children (through age 10) whose curiousity backfires. Their motive isn't destructive and they gain no pleasure from the consequence of their misadventure. They simply are attracted to fire for the same reasons anybody is: "Its elemental warmth and beauty."

But in more than a third of the fires set by children, curiosity does cross the line to intentional or even malicious fire-setting. Pinsonneault says what starts with innocent match play, given other environmental factors, can develop into a more serious problem.

"No malicious fire-setter developed this problem overnight," she says. "They all started playing with matches between ages 3 and 7. Older than that, they can reason cause and effect. They've seen enough television and movies to know what fire can do."

According to the National Firehawk Foundation, the profile of a recurrent child fire-starter is more often a boy, between the ages of 5 and 16, with average or better intelligence. Typically, he has experienced emotional strain in the home -- perhaps a divorce, an impending move, a death. For many of these children, fire-setting is an expression of loneliness, anger or frustration.

In most areas, the largest group of recurrent fire-setters are delinquents, kids usually aged 11 and 14 who set fires outside the home, in vacant buildings or trash dumpsters. Wooden calls them troublemakers for whom the strike of a match is an act of vandalism. Pinsonneault says peer pressure is often an ingredient in these fires that make up 20 to 23 percent of her caseload. "They are not juvenile delinquents in the sense that they are punks on the street corner," says Pinsonneault.

More frightening than the delinquents is another group -- the crisis fire-setters. These are children grappling with emotional problems or disruptive events in their family life. Their playing with fire usually is a way of crying out for help. They make up 12 to 15 percent of Pinsonneault's cases.

"They are most notorious because they set fires that are symbolic of the problem," she says. "For instance, a child who is being sexually abused may burn the bed it is happening in. Also, we get a lot of cases where a 6- or 7-year-old sets fire to a crib in a home where a new infant has been recently brought home. These are events that are upsetting and these children haven't been adequately prepared to handle them. So there is a real sense of anger in what they do. These children don't have remorse. There is no mistaking what the kid's problem is about."

Most fire-intervention programs such as the one in Fall River, and others from San Francisco to Chicago, have proven highly successful in recognizing the characteristics of juvenile fire-setters and resolving their problems. Pinsonneault, for instance, boasts a 99 percent success rate. Nancy Estepp, commander of the educational resources division of the Prince George's County Fire Department, says there is virtually no recidivism in the county's program for children referred to her by concerned parents, teachers or the courts.

Like Pinsonneault, Estepp says most of the 50 children, aged 4 through 15, she counsels each year start fires simply out of curiosity. "Most of them lack the education, and the parent needs some direction," says Estepp. "All of us have a natural curiosity about fire -- so we want them to have a healthy respect for fire. We want them to understand that fire is a tool and not a toy."

In most programs, that understanding comes through a variety of means. Estepp mentions heart-to-heart talks with the offending child. Brochures and pamphlets are available for parents who need to be reminded of some basic safety rules. Classes are offered on the use and misuse of fire. Some youthful offenders are paired with a local firefighter through the nationwide Firehawks program.

"The majority of children need reinforcement," says Estepp. "A parent is taking a very serious and positive role by saying to them, 'I am concerned about you playing with those matches. We're going down to the fire department and talk to someone.' "

Another local project that has been conducted throughout Maryland for two years is designed to reach even younger children. The federally funded Fire Safety and Burn Prevention Program, sponsored by the Maryland State Fire Marshal's office, attempts to provide to children, nursery school through age 5, a dose of prevention before they can ever flick their first cigarette lighter.

"We introduce young children to fire and burn prevention and survival techniques," says project manager Sallie Tinney, who is also a teacher at the University of Maryland's Center For Young Children. "The things we have selected as appropriate curriculum for very young children has gotten rid of the 'ifs' and 'thens.' We keep it clear and simple."

Tinney says her project's message has been effective. It is pared to the age of its audience. Unlike some other programs, it is all positive-oriented: It tries to teach children what action to take rather than what not to do. Says Tinney, "The negative message is 'Don't play with matches.' Our message is: 'If you see matches, leave them alone and go tell a grown-up.' "

The simple and active instruction seems to work beyond expectation with the youngsters. The father of one 4-year-old who was in the program reported to Tinney that while walking the dog one evening, the child pointed out to him nine different packs of matches along the ground -- but wouldn't pick up any of them. In another case, when a fire broke out in the kitchen of a College Park home, a 4-year-old girl remained calm and instructed her panicking parents what to do.

"We want to expose them to fire safety," says Tinney, "but we don't want to negate the parents' and adults' responsibility. We don't want parents thinking that their little girl has had this curriculum, so they can leave matches laying around now ... resolving the child fire-setter problem is everyone's responsibility."