All parents need to explain the dangers of fire to their children. Some pointers from the experts:
Keep all matches and lighters in a single designated place in the house -- out of reach of children. Don't deliberately hide them: Secrecy only ignites curiosity in youngsters. "Get everything up above eye level, as you would with medicine, tools, sharp knives," says Irene Pinsonneault, who heads a regional fire-setters intervention program in New England. "Curiosity did do in the cat, and it is part of every kid's childhood."
Never assume that infants and toddlers are incapable of lighting a match or lighter. Most prevention programs advise to teach children to bring matches or lighters to parents when they find them. Maryland's Fire Safety for Young Children curriculum recommends a hands-off policy: Children are directed to "take positive action" by telling an adult the location of matches or a lighter, but never touching it themselves.
Children can learn about the positive uses of fire if you let them watch you use it correctly and carefully. Explain that fire is dangerous, that it is an adult tool and never a toy. When children are older, about 5 to 7, give them some simple tasks to try using fire. Under your close supervision, let them light candles on a birthday cake, or help start a fire in the fireplace or outdoor grill. "Whenever the parent is using fire to cook, or to heat their homes, or fire is on the television, or a fire engine goes by, the child's interest is high," says Pinsonneault, "and that's the time to talk to them about fire. Tell them it's okay if they want to see fire, but they have to have a grown-up with them because it is so dangerous if something goes wrong.
Youngsters also can learn the dangerous and tragic consequences of flames. The Prince George's County Fire Department's pamphlet called "Children and Fireplay" recommends parents contact the fire department to find the location of a charred house where a child "can see it and ... pretend that it is their house." It can prove a powerful experience that shows "the use of fire can lead to death and serious loss."
Telltale signs of recurrent fire-starting problems in children are often easy to identify: Fires of unknown origin found in your home; small burn holes in carpets, charred paper in sinks or wastebaskets; matches or lighters hidden in your child's closet or under his bed; an unusual fascination with fires and burning buildings that comes up in the child's conversation. Any child who has started more than one small and seemingly accidental fire should be counseled by a professional trained to recognize the characteristics of an abnormal fixation with fire, advise experts. And parents who are concerned about their child's flammable fascination should contact their local fire department, which can refer them to fire-setter intervention services.