Fire Starter

Around 30,000 illegal fires are set each year in Tyne and Wear. It's the arson capital of Britain. Most of the culprits are children, some as young as five. And for them, summertime means fire time
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Merciful drizzle. It is the sort of day that the firefighters of Newcastle's run-down West End pray for during the school holidays. It's wet and it's miserable enough to keep indoors the children for whom summertime is fire time. The downpour will stem the seasonal rise in an already astonishingly high level of arson involving children, some of them as young as five.

But on the edge of Scotswood, deep skid marks on a sodden, grassy verge suggest that not all the little fire raisers are inside. A Ford Orion lies abandoned in the nearby ravine. Those who saw it being driven across the grass say that, only minutes later, flames had consumed it.

The firemen, now disconnecting hoses, were on the scene quickly but still too late to spot the car thieves. Scotswood, Benwell and Elswick, which cover four square miles of Newcastle's west side, have the highest car arson rate in Europe with teenage joyriders usually to blame. These areas also have the highest overall arson rates in Britain. Again children, usually boys, are most often responsible.

"It was the Scotchie Skip Rats that done it," insists a crop-haired, 10-year-old boy, one of a group of lads from the other, more respectable side of Scotswood's frontline, who have gathered to enjoy the drama. "Gangster wannabees," he says, before mouthing what sounds like his mother's opinion, that the area was fine until the Scotchies came.

"A man said he would put me in the fire if I had anything to do with it," the boy adds. Suspecting a kid in the crowd is not far-fetched. Fire setters often hang around to see the brigade arrive. The firefighters see the same faces again and again but do not have the proof to challenge them.

It is eight years since Newcastle's West End went up in flames during the infamous inner-city riots. "That's where the Dodd's Arms used to be, before it was burned," says fire officer Alan Percy nostalgically. He points to an open space, just round the corner from the Ponderosa, a tarpaulin- roofed shack used by local winos as a private drinking club.

Mr Percy, who has been seconded to the Northumbria Arson Task Force - a joint police and fire service venture - came under petrol bomb attack then. The kids stopped rioting after a few days but they never stopped lighting fires. There were 39,000 fires on Tyne and Wear in 1991 and there are still 29,000 annually. But, then again, arson was a local kiddies game long before the riots.

The arsonist's mark - sinister stains of carbon - is everywhere, from the back gardens of derelict properties to the walls of seemingly endless fire-damaged buildings. There are 2,000 empty properties in the West End. "That's 2,000 potential play areas for kids who set fires," says Mr Percy.

Properties awaiting the wrecking ball, in an area where fewer and fewer people can be persuaded to live, are a major arson target. The task force watches the Benwell Terraces where several streets lie derelict, "Gas Off" daubed in canary yellow paint on house walls. Caroline Street, off Elswick Road, provides a stark warning. Every house is boarded, metal grilles where windows should be, jagged glass lacing walls. Still the kids get in by knocking holes through the bricks. At the bottom of the street are two large burned-out houses, where the council seems to have given up boarding, perhaps in the hope that leaving two vulnerable sites might save the rest of the street.

The arson task force was set up two years ago in an attempt to pool expertise in the battle against the fire setters. Through fire safety sessions with local children and one-to-one counselling with some culprits, it claims to have reduced arson - which is blamed for four in every five West End fires - by 20 per cent. The rate still soars above the national arson average of around one in four fires. Just what is behind this amazing epidemic is the subject of a continuing debate.

Policewoman Heather Fenney is dealing with the latest house fire which caused thousands of pounds worth of damage. The perpetrators retired to the other end of the street to watch the fire engines arrive. The "ringleader" was an angelic, blue-eyed, 11-year-old, complete with accomplices aged from eight to 10.

PC Fenney still finds the ages of offenders hard to take in. "They were little dotes really," she says of the trio. "It made me feel like the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." When challenged, the children admitted arson. They also revealed, that while this was the first time they had been caught, it was not their first fire. "They were terrified," says a sympathetic PC Fenney.

Fire fighters of the old school, who see the damage, injuries and dead, think this attitude is soft. But PC Fenney is knee deep in damage of another kind. "The streets around here are hard for children to survive," she says. While her latest case is sub-judice, and not up for discussion, she believes that many arson attacks are a symptom of distress. Some psychologists suggest arson is connected to sexual abuse, endowing the otherwise powerless with a primitive taste of power. PC Fenney says she has been shocked by living conditions, while Mr Percy has also visited homes where an atmosphere of violence was palpable, and children obviously abused.

Marion Kelly, a fire brigade education officer, deals largely with "little kids acting out of curiosity", who are referred to her by worried parents, teachers or social workers. More than 70 per cent of the children are boys, though the number of girls is increasing. As well as being curious about fire - a universal fascination - Ms Kelly says the children are often crying out for help and adds: "Sometimes it's really hard to walk away and leave the kids."

The child fire setter is often the quietest member of a dysfunctional family which may have moved three or four times after previous fires.

Sometimes parents tell unit staff that they also set fires as children.

While the task force can draw on the expertise of the social services, its most seriously disturbed children are referred to psychologists. "These children have no empathy, or interest in consequences and show no remorse," says Ms Kelly.

While the majority of children grow out of their fascination with fire, Ms Kelly says she has come across three serious cases where children were really excited by flames. One child was sexually aroused, which is in keeping with reports of arsonists being found masturbating at fires.

Firefighters say they can spot the disturbed ones. They are often the children who watch them "goggle-eyed" or, in some cases, are bitterly disappointed when the brigade turns up. Rock-solid conclusions about what motivates them are hard to draw because while evidence of their handiwork is everywhere, few arsonists are caught. The crime has one of the poorest clear-up rates in the country, not least because evidence tends to go up in smoke.

While deprivation and abuse are almost certainly factors, psychologists agree that other forces are also at work. Newcastle's fire setters most commonly cite boredom. "I just wanted to knack [destroy] it," says one teenage boy after a property fire. Anger is also a motivation. Which makes for interesting speculation about the child who set fire to his parents' bed while they were in it.

Anger, and a slice of revenge, may lurk behind the rise in attacks on schools across the country. The Arson Prevention Bureau recently revealed that every day three schools in Britain are set ablaze. The annual bill is pounds 43m and rising. The typical arsonist is a pupil or ex-pupil between 10 and 16 and attacks are thought to increase during school holidays. This summer, fire setters have struck twice at the same school in Gateshead.

The arson unit has referred children to clinical psychologist Damaris Stuart-William. She would like to see more juvenile arsonists but courts generally opt for custodial sentences. She separates the curious and generally delinquent from those who use fire as a means to an end - such as Sharon, an inarticulate and troubled teenage in care, who set fire to her bedroom because she wanted to move on.

"A lot of these kids are disadvantaged in lots of ways, with problems they are unable to solve," Ms Stuart-William is at pains to explain.

While the arsonist's motivation may be complex, educational psychologist Andrew Muckley says the way forward is simple. Tackling behaviour is more effective than wasting a fortune prettifying the West End, he says. Pointing out that poverty does not always result in an arson epidemic, he recommends a "zero tolerance" approach which challenges children's behaviour early. "If you knock down old houses and put up new ones arsonists just burn the new ones," he says. The trouble is that it is hard to check the behaviour of children who are seldom caught.

When child arsonists are reached the results seem encouraging. The task force claims that 90 per cent of the children it sees do not re-offend. There is a sad irony, however: the unit, which is held up by Government as a model for the rest of the country, will soon run out of money.

So far, ministers have rejected pleas for new funding. But up on Newcastle's front-line this summer, where the view is blighted with smoke damage and charred remains, it is hard not to conclude that this might be dangerously short-sighted. For, armed with rags and matches, the Skip Rats and their gangster peers are still risking lives every day. And the firemen are left praying for rain.