Don’t play with fire!

Most of last week’s fires will soon be history, thank goodness, but another Santa Ana winds “event” is forecast for the end of this week, so we’re getting braced and hoping it won’t be as harsh as the last one.

But the last round is still in the local news, and the Wednesday morning papers relayed the information that one of the larger outbreaks, the Buckweed fire in northern LA County (one of the ones that was nearest to us), was started by a child playing with matches. From the 10/31/07 L.A. Times:

A fire that charred more than 38,000 acres and destroyed 21 homes in northern Los Angeles County last week was sparked by a boy playing with matches, sheriff’s officials said Tuesday. The disclosure about the Buckweed fire (was) initially blamed on downed power lines… L.A. County Sheriff’s Department arson investigators did not name the boy believed responsible for the Buckweed fire. Nor did they give his age or the community where he and his family live. “We have identified a juvenile boy as the person who started the fire,” said Steve Whitmore, a department spokesman. “Arson investigators interviewed the young man, and he acknowledged he had been playing with matches and accidentally started a fire.” The boy was released to the custody of his parents. The case has been turned over to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

I’m a bit dumbstruck by this, and I’m trying not to be overly judgmental, but it’s difficult. I expect that some of my questions will be answered as this story develops, but right now I’m wondering:

Where were the parents? The younger this boy is, the more of a difference that makes, I think – were they neglectful of a young child, or just ignorant of where their older son was and what he was doing? Has he done things like this before, and did they know about them or not? Since he’s a juvenile, are the parents are legally responsible anyway?

What was a kid doing with matches in the first place?

Why was he playing with them outside? Was anyone with him at the time?

Legally, if it was an accident caused by a child, is it considered arson?

I’m not sure whether the origins of this fire make it more sad, or add an element of the ridiculous. I can’t fathom any good reason for being outdoors with matches in extremely dry weather, with winds gusting to hurricane strength and even stronger, especially for a child. But if it were my child, or me, I can imagine the guilt and terror I’d be feeling over knowing I was at fault for this. Sure, accidents happen, but many of them can be prevented by some care and common sense, and playing with matches in high winds doesn’t show either of those attributes at all.

And not to dump all of this on the parents, but again, where were they, and what were they doing while this was going on? I know I’ve done my share of ranting about hovering parents (probably much more than my share, truthfully), but knowing what your kids are up to at any given time – and trying to make sure they don’t invite trouble – isn’t being overly involved; it’s in the job description.

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  1. When they were ten or so, my brother and a friend snuck a package of matches out of the house to the bush behind our yard. There, about a couple hundred yards into the very dry late-August woods, the two nitwits amused themselves by burning the nests of tent-caterpillars, as they’d seen my mother do.

    My mother, however, was using a lighter, and didn’t drop a burning match into the dry leaves when it scorched her fingers. They tried to put it out, but couldn’t, and, frightened, ran out of the woods and onto the street.

    Where they commenced to play, because they sure as heck weren’t going to TELL anyone they’d been playing with matches…

    Some while later, who knows how long, my mother saw the smoke out the kitchen window, a lot of smoke, and called the fire department. We were told to gather our valuables, because if the wind shifted, we’d have to leave. Thereafter passed a couple of tense hours.

    The wind didn’t shift, the fire was safely extinguished, and there was no damage to anything except trees — and I didn’t find out my brother had been responsible for this until about two years ago.

    Depending on the circumstances, it could take a child about five minutes to start something that would become that dangerous; five minutes when both parents think he’s in the yard — and when they double-check, six minutes later, he IS in the yard.

    If the child was older than seven or eight or so, it’s reasonable to me to think that he could have enough physical freedom to do this, without the parents being negligent.

  2. MaryP – So far, the age of the boy involved hasn’t been made public, but I agree that if he is older than seven or eight, the parents probably aren’t watching him every second that he’s outside. But given the strength of the wind that day, no one should have been outside if they didn’t have to be. There are still a lot of questions.

    But your story illustrates quite well how accidents can happen when kids get their hands on matches. Your brother’s incident had a much better outcome, though.