Program aims to stop kids from setting fires

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids firefighters say a program that discourages young people from starting fires is doing its job.

“It’s ‘Scared Straight,’ fire department version,” firefighter Harold Elmore said. “And that’s the way we like it.”

In July, fire raced through an apartment complex on Fourth Street NW near Davis Avenue on Grand Rapids’ West Side. Smoke billowed for hours. Firefighters doused hot spots into the next day. No one was hurt, but the fire destroyed the building that 18 people called home. A little boy playing with a lighter was blamed for starting it.

Fire consumes apartments on Fourth St NW (July 24, 2014)
(Fire consumes apartments on Fourth St NW. July 24, 2014)

>>Inside Photos of the fire at NW GR apartments

Gabby Hage-Bafield knows what it was like for the boy who set the Fourth Street fire. A couple of years ago, her fascination with fire led her to start one that nearly destroyed a neighbor’s garage.

What started as a small fire, the 16-year-old told 24 Hour News 8, quickly got out of control.

“I opened up the door and then all the smoke goes out and then the fire begins to get bigger and bigger,” she said.

Some parents dismiss fascination with fire as typical kid stuff. Some are too embarrassed to admit there’s a problem. But Gabby’s mom Kristie Castillo realized she needed help.

“Kids make mistakes. The only way to teach them is to show them the correct ways and give them the right sources, not to ignore it and not push it underneath the rug,” Kristie Castillo said.

For Gabby, that help came from the same people sent to put out the flames.

“This burning that I have — no pun intended — stems from my earlier career of dealing with pulling dead children out of houses,” Harold Elmore of the Grand Rapids Fire Department said.

Elmore coordinates Fire Match, a program that identifies young fire setters and provides help with the goal of stopping the problem before it gets worse and causes someone to get hurt — or killed.

Fire Match is big departure from the fireman-friendly safety assemblies many children attended in grade school. It’s a direct, in-your-face approach. Firefighters share their own experiences, including the tragedies.

“He had that voice. It was like that deep voice,” Gabby said of the firefighter who spoke with her. “It got through my head, like, yeah, shouldn’t be playing with matches anymore.”

And Fire Match shows videos, some of which are graphic, of people with burn injuries.

Elmore said he watches for reactions when he shows the videos — widened eyes and uncomfortable posture. It tells him they get it.

“She gave us the response we like to get that lets us know that we got you,” he said of Gabby.

“The best part was learning how fire can damage people and how fire can kill,” Gabby said.

Experts say young fire setters range from curious kids who want to experiment with fire to children who are pathological fire setters. Fire Match refers some of its kids to a mental health specialist.

“When I was a little kid, I would always love to play with fire. I would be underneath a bed and I would just play with fire and just watch the fire ’cause I though it would be pretty cool,” Gabby said.

That’s typical of the young people Fire Match helps, and gives parents a clue what to look for.

“Look at the mattress of your child’s bed. Look underneath the bed. Look in the closet. Those are areas where the child will typically play with fire,” Elmore said.

Elmore said there are often contributing factors to a fascination with fire.

“You’ll have an abundance of kids that actually have some type of abuse going on at their house or outside the house, meaning bullying,” Elmore said.

Fire Match has been successful at helping children before they fall through the cracks. Elmore has been at it for three years, and none of the kids he has worked with have shown signs they’ve returned to fire setting — including Gabby.

“I went down that path and it wasn’t fun, so I went back up the other way into a new path,” she said.

Anyone with questions or seeking help for a child can call the Grand Rapids Fire Department at 616.456.3900 and ask for the Fire Prevention Division.

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