- Associated Press - Monday, December 7, 2015

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - In an eerie surveillance image from a late July night, four teenagers stand near a piece of construction equipment. One, with a shaggy wave of dark hair obscuring his face, leans forward, cradling a gasoline container. A second reaches out with a spindly arm, presumably in an effort to help.

Three of the four teens would later be charged in connection with the arson at a West Asheville apartment building under construction on Haywood Road. The fourth hasn’t yet been identified, a city arson investigator said this week, and the cases are still making their way through the court system.

In Candler over the summer, two boys, ages 4 and 6, were involved in igniting a fire in a bedroom closet of their mobile home.

In total in Buncombe County in 2014, 24 arson fires involved juveniles, according to David Cutshall, an investigator with the Asheville-Buncombe Arson Task Force, and Deputy Fire Marshal Terry Gentry.

That number surprised Breena Williams, who joined the Asheville force as an investigator two years ago.

With an average hovering around eight a year, 24 was too high, she said. That was also the same year an Asheville 10-year-old was charged with 13 felonies in connection with a litany of area vehicle break-ins and fires.

“There was nothing to change their behaviors,” said Gentry. “With youth fire-setter programs to be successful, you need more than just education.”

Enter Firesafe Together, a new multiagency program in Buncombe County that works with referrals from schools, the community, law enforcement agencies, Buncombe fire departments, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and social services agencies to first educate, and then treat, youths up to age 18 who are at risk of setting fires or have already been involved in one.

The three teens charged in the West Asheville construction site fire, for example, might have benefited from the program, investigators said.

Since its official launch in July, set in motion with the support of the office of District Attorney Todd Williams, the program is gaining traction, Gentry said. Four juveniles have been referred so far and Gentry said officials are trying to get the word out that educators could reach every child in Buncombe if need be.

Williams said helping one child could save multiple lives. “It might just be one, but it will make all the difference.”

Cutshall said it’s alarming any time a juvenile is involved in a fire. “You never want to put a juvenile into the judicial system,” he said.

Identifying fire-prone youths can be fraught with the typically inscrutable nature of human motivation.

On one end of the spectrum are children who are simply curious, Gentry said.

Then there are children who are experiencing a trauma at home whose misbehavior is a cry for help. Then there are older teens who are “thrill-seekers.” Past that are teens who are seeking to commit a crime, and on the far spectrum, fire maniacs who are suffering from some physiological disorder.

“The educational component will fit in all five of those categories,” Gentry said, whereas the other agencies might not be needed in every case.

“It’s not just fire departments’ problem when kids set fires,” he said. “It’s everybody’s problem.”

Gentry said one of the keys to Firesafe is that the education component is tailored to every age, for whatever length of time is needed to complete a curriculum based on national guidelines, and with the entire family, including guardians and other siblings.

“Every kid is different, that’s why we do an evaluation,” said Breena Williams, who serves as the administrator of Firesafe. “It is for the entire family, not just the child.”

The educational piece is conducted by trained fire and safety life counselors at whichever Buncombe County fire station is closest to where the family lives.

Gentry, who educated the family of the Candler boys over a series of nights after they were referred by social services, said he knows firsthand that education works.

When his boys were young, he found a pile of burned matches in a bedroom. He said it was concerning more than frightening, because he knew it was curiosity.

After the educational component, Gentry said officials will conduct follow-ups with families to be sure underlying factors have been addressed.

“We’re not just concerned with no, they’ve not had any more fires,” Gentry said. “We’re trying to get an idea with that youth, what’s going on in their life.”

Gentry stays in touch with the Candler family, who declined an interview.

One month after the family completed the education, they had the chance to put the newfound knowledge to the test.

The boys’ grandmother activated a fire alarm while cooking. The boys grabbed their younger sibling and exited the home, running to the designated meeting place outside, a trampoline, and telling their grandfather the whole house was burning.

Their grandfather realized the cause of the alarm and checked to ensure everything was fine.

They debriefed. The error? The boys ran instead of walked to the meeting place, dubbed the “jumpy jump.”

But Gentry knows the boys know that.

“We consider it a victory in the fact that they exited the home and took their sibling with them,” Gentry said. “The boys saw room for improvement on their actions.”

Gentry stressed the program is not a punishment, even and especially for those who may come to it from the court system.

Sylvia Clement, chief court counselor for Buncombe’s Juvenile Justice system, said referrals would likely be youths on a diversion contract.

The court has not yet referred anyone, but Clement said “any type of resource that we can provide for children in Buncombe to help them be successful would be a benefit.”

And Gentry is determined.

“If they can learn something that will make their life better and give them a chance to have a life, that’s reason for doing this,” he said.

“If we needed to talk individually to every kid, that’s what we’ll strive to do.”

___

Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com

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