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Boy, 6, set house fire, officials say

State highlights need for education

By Milton Valencia
Globe Staff / May 21, 2010

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A 6-year-old boy set the fire that destroyed a three-decker in Lawrence Monday, the same day that another youngster was charged in juvenile court with setting the blaze that killed two people in Haverhill in 2008, authorities said.

State and Lawrence fire officials said yesterday that the high-profile arson cases show the importance of teaching fire prevention and awareness, even to children at a young age.

“Juvenile fire-setting is a behavior that needs to be taken seriously by all adults, regardless of the size of the fire,’’ said state Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan. “Children and youth misuse fire for a variety of reasons, and it is important that they receive appropriate attention.’’

Fire Captain Bob Wilson of Lawrence said yesterday that investigators determined that the 6-year-old boy, whose name was not released because he is a juvenile, obtained matches at the Pleasant Terrace home of a family friend and ignited several pieces of paper. The paper was placed on bedding and near curtains, and the fire spread quickly Monday afternoon, eventually engulfing the house.

“The fire was going well,’’ Wilson said, adding that witnesses “couldn’t believe how fast it went from a little smoke to fully involved.’’

He estimated that the fire caused about $246,000 in damage, leaving the house uninhabitable and displacing about nine residents. A third-floor tenant was treated at the scene for smoke inhalation.

The boy, who was seen fleeing the house at the time of the fire, was later questioned and acknowledged that he accidentally started the fire by playing with matches, a tendency he had displayed before, Wilson said. He said the boy was visibly upset.

“Like most children that age, he didn’t realize that big fires start small,’’ Wilson said. “The fire just took off, and at that age he had no concept as far as how it was going to happen.’’

Wilson, of the Fire Department’s Arson Division, said that the boy’s mother was “riddled with guilt’’ after the fire. The boy cannot be charged or referred to any program because he is under 7, but the case will be referred to the Department of Children and Families for review, Wilson said.

“The mother was eager to get whatever help she could get to break this behavior,’’ he said.

Wilson, who coordinates a Lawrence Fire School that works with the local school system and the courts, said that a 6-year-old boy may start small fires for two reasons: as a way to act out or simply out of curiosity.

On Monday, a 10-year-old boy pleaded not delinquent in Lawrence Juvenile Court to using a lighter to ignite a fire in his Haverhill home, killing Mary Pina, 50, and Daquon Davis, 6, on Nov. 8, 2008.

Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett said that the charges were brought in part to prevent it from happening again and to ensure that the boy receives proper treatment.

The fires occurred a week after the state Department of Fire Services, along with insurance and education groups, sponsored a two-day conference on juvenile fire-setting and strategies for prevention.

State Department of Fire Services figures show that from 2003 to 2007, juveniles set 912 fires in Massachusetts, causing 93 injuries and an estimated $9.5 million in damages. More than half the fires were started by children playing with matches and lighters.

Officials also believe that the number of fires reported reflects only a tenth of fires that are set.

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