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Forest Grove boy, 6, accidentally burns mobile home down


Juvenile fire-setting program helps naturally curious kids

It was the "owie" that burned the house down.

That’s what Forest Grove Fire Marshal David Nemeyer learned when he crouched down to interview a terrified six-year-old about the fire that destroyed the double-wide mobile home he shared with his grandparents.

The fire happened around 8 p.m. last Wednesday, March 6, at the Rose Grove Mobile Home Park at the east end of Forest Grove. It’s a textbook example of how naturally curious children — especially boys, Nemeyer said — can accidentally start fires, and why most Metro-area fire departments have at least one juvenile fire-setter specialist on staff.

Nemeyer, one of three such specialists at Forest Grove Fire & Rescue, had to loosen up the Cornelius Elementary School student with small talk about toys and school before the boy explained he’d found a pack of matches while his grandparents lay asleep in another room. He told Nemeyer he crawled onto a bunk bed and began to light the matches until “one of them burned my finger, so I dropped it.”

When the match lit the bed on fire, the boy woke his grandparents and they all escaped safely, according to Nemeyer.

With the mobile home a total loss, Nemeyer said, the family took refuge in a local hotel, thanks to Red Cross vouchers. The grandparents — who appeared to be the boy’s guardians, he said — talked about joining relatives in Sweet Home.

In the hands of a child, Nemeyer said, matches and lighters can be as dangerous as a gun — and are far more likely to cause damage. He can’t remember a single accidental shooting involving a child in Forest Grove over the past 12 years, while dozens of children set accidental fires here each year.

“I was a kid who played with fire,” said Nemeyer, who doesn’t blame children for their curiosity. Instead, he recommends parents contact the Forest Grove Fire Department if their child seems to be misusing fire.

Juvenile fire-setter specialists can ask specially designed questions to find out whether the child is acting out of pure curiosity, stress, random mischief or a desire to harm.

The past two years in Forest Grove, specialists questioned nine to 12 children a year, Nemeyer said, with that number peaking at 25 the year before. Most of the children went on to attend a free juvenile fire-setting program operated by Fire Safe Children and Families, he said.

Last Wednesday’s case matched National Fire Protection Association statistics showing that “preschoolers and kindergartners are most likely to start these fires, typically by playing with matches and lighters, and are most likely to die in them.” In addition, 40 percent of such fires begin in the bedroom. Mattresses and bedding were the items first ignited in 24 percent of those fires.

At the time Nemeyer interviewed him last Wednesday, the young fire-setter didn’t yet know that three of the family cats and a number of pet birds had died in the fire. One cat is still missing. “I don’t expect it will be found,” Nemeyer said.

Instead, the boy was upset about losing some books he’d checked out from the library that day and some pictures he’d made in class — and about his burnt finger, Nemeyer said. “He showed me his little owie.”