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Firestarters intervention program is underway

Alden and Tami Yliniemi recently attended a national youth fire intervention program. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 2
This house fire near downtown Park Rapids is believed to have been set by juveniles. A reward is being offered to find the culprits. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 2

Fire mesmerizes kids at the age of one: Family smiling around a birthday cake with a candle; they're all happy; the baby blows out the candle.

There's applause.

Baby gets the idea that fire is a good thing.

A Menahga firefighter and his wife are in the fledgling stages of sounding the alarm, starting a Juvenile Firesetters Intervention program. It's aimed at educating parents and the public to warning signs that grow from that initial birthday celebration to problem behavior.

Firefighter Alden and wife Tami Yliniemi, who works in the contract social services field, recently attended a six-day intensive course at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md.

"The need for early intervention is paramount," Tami said. Their course focused on juveniles five and under, but they had first-hand interviews with older kids sentenced to a juvenile facility who admitted setting up to 600 fires before they got caught.

Minnesota is just getting a juvenile firesetter intervention program going after a three-year absence.

Alden is working on a pilot program to introduce to Menahga School. Tami is along to provide support, grass roots organization, locating stakeholders and building coalitions.

First step - targeting Head Start programs to reach the vulnerable populations in that infant to five-year-old stage.

"Eighty percent of arsons are started by kids," Tami said. "Half of those kids are five and under."

Identifying ignition sources in the home is a good start, the couple says.

Parents and teens light candles - "it's culturally accepted" - without much thought to burning down the house, but it happens. Just ask Alden how many candle fires he's responded to in his seven years on the force.

Those unguarded cigarette lighters in someone's purse can be deadly.

Intentionally or not, kids want to recreate that euphoric feeling of blowing out those first candles and receiving praise.

"We are seeing the need for a referral system," Tami said.

Kids that enjoy lighting matches, playing with fireworks, watching things burn destructively, may need some early intervention, the couple suggest.

Fire-play can escalate to the kid who boasted about setting 600 fires before he was caught. And that's why Tami's Social Services experience is crucial. She knows agencies and resources to turn to.

Their task is monumental.

When shows like "Jackass" and You Tube videos glorify stupid stunts, "one-upsmanship" usually follows. Tami calls it the "STAN" principle, an acronym for "shoot that ain't nothing," (only in more earthy language.)

It usually results in injuries and damage to property, Alden maintains.

"There's a real reluctance to label a child as an arsonist," Tami said. Fire behavior experts "have identified a pretty significant vein of troubled kids that will use fire-play as a mechanism to cope with multiple stressors."

Alden said in his role as training officer for the Menahga Fire Department, he talks to lots of groups of kids.

But the eye opener came when he visited juvenile arsonists committed to facilities for 15 months at a minimum to deal with the behavioral aspect of arson.

"Half the kids we talked to said it would have helped," he said of an interventionist program.

The Jefferson County, Colorado Sheriff's Office released an educational video that caught the couple's attention. Two of the three Columbine shooters began their criminal lives setting fires.

The Minnesota State Fire Marshal's Office estimated on the low side that 1,200 juvenile-started fires were lit in the five-year period from 2007 through 2011. According to the state website, the Fire Marshal's office recognizes four juvenile fire-setting motivations: "curiosity, crisis-reaction, delinquency and pathological behavior."

Age appropriate education must be ongoing, Tami maintains, beyond the typical second-grade visit to the fire station.

Intervention can identify problem kids and divert them to a fire safety program or mental health counseling, the couple believe. Fire-setters know no gender restrictions. Both boys and girls set fires.

As a firefighter, Alden says he believes his role goes beyond "hopping on a truck" to put out fires or "cooking beans and wieners" at the annual fire hall open house.

The Yliniemis envision a family safety network that will give uniform help to fire-starters. They'd like to see an early screening program set up to identify problem kids before they have 600 fires under their tiny belts.

And to categorize juvenile fire-setters as attention-seeking kids oversimplifies a complex problem.

Ten core teams like this one have been set up throughout Minnesota. Those teams meet monthly to share resources, ideas and experts in the field.

In a rural area like Hubbard and Wadena counties, there's little raw data on how serious the problem of fire-setting is.

"There's not mandated reporting," Tami said, contending a fire at home may never be reported. And because of their juvenile status, no public records exist.

"If it's not stopped it could become a coping mechanism for life," she added.

It scares her as a mom, she admits. Alden admitted to meeting incarcerated kids at the juvenile facility that scared him.

"What they choose to do is so dangerous," Tami said shaking her head.

The couple hopes to gradually expand and spread the education beyond the Menahga school.

The toll in property damages and ruined lives is too high to ignore, they maintain.

Currently the state has set up the Minnesota Juvenile Fire-setter Helpline (800-500-8897) and incoming calls are answered by an automated system, the website indicates. Calls "are reviewed by a deputy state fire marshal to help find the appropriate source of assistance."

The Yliniemis hope intervention is closer than a 1-800 call. Even neighborhoods can join intervention programs, they say.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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