In Newcastle upon Tyne, where ram-raiding was once the favoured crime among children and young teenagers, setting fires has become frighteningl y commonplace. And damage to derelict buildings is not the only result: in May, four people died in a fire that had been started deliberately. Simon Beckett meets the Task Force appointed to douse the enthusiasm of the young firestarters
he boy is 13 and gangly, his hair shaved to a

stubble. He's surrounded by a group of 10

mates, girls and boys of similar age, but there's no bravado as he describes how he set fire to a caravan with a cigarette lighter taken from his mother's coat pocket. Nor when he admits this wasn't the first time he set anything alight, or why he did it. "It's 'cos I like the look of fire, know what I mean? You're looking, and you just can't help but look. It's fascination."

It's a fascination that is becoming more and more popular. Incidents of arson have doubled in the UK in the past 10 years, according to the Arson Prevention Bureau (an organisation established by the Association of British Insurers and the Home Office), with 40 per cent of all fires now being started deliberately. But in the West End of Newcastle upon Tyne, where the boy and his friends live, fire-setting has become so much a fact of life that, last October, the country's first Arson Task Force was set up there. "Arson is something that has just grown over the years," says the Task Force's co-ordinator and social-science researcher, Melanie Wells. "It's a fashionable crime. A few years ago it was joy-riding and ram-raiding; then all of a sudden it's fire-setting."

A joint venture by the Tyne and Wear Fire Brigade and Northumbria Police, the Task Force has been part-funded by the Arson Prevention Bureau, initially as a two-year pilot project. Its mission is to reduce the number of malicious fires in an area with one of the highest arson rates in Europe. Last year 80 per cent of fires in the West End were started deliberately. About nine out of 10 of these were attributable to vandalism, with most of the offenders typically young males under 16 and the main targets being cars, rubbish and empty (or what is termed "void") property.

But not all of them.

In May this year a pregnant woman, her two children and their babysitter died in the Scotswood area of the West End after arsonists set fire to their house by pouring petrol through the letterbox. Three suspects were arrested for the Chepstow Road murders, but released owing to lack of evidence (one of them later hanged himself on the day of one of the funerals). "It seems to be the socially accepted thing that the way to warn people off, or to get your own back, is to set fire to their car or property," says detective constable Martyn Campbell, one of the three-strong Arson Task Force - the others are Melanie Wells and station officer Alan Percy. "The Chepstow Road murders sort of drilled it home to everybody that this is what could happen."

The maximum penalty for arson is 15 years - longer if the fire was set with intent to endanger life. Psychologically, though, the motivations are almost endless: revenge, excitement, personal profit (as in fraudulent insurance claims), concealing another crime or because someone is mentally ill. "I think there is an innate fascination for fire in all people," says Katarina Fritzon, a research forensic psychologist at the University of Liverpool, who has carried out a PhD on arson, "not an obsessive fascination, but most people like fire. For people who light them it's more pathological. It can be quite an addictive behaviour, as well. It's self-reinforcing: if they do it to get attention, and then they get attention, they keep doing it."

Some psychologists claim arsonists must have had an early significant experience of fire, either through witnessing one or having a relative in the fire service. It may be relevant that arson has increased vastly since gas, electric fires and central heating replaced open fires in most homes; anyone whose fascination for fire is above the norm now doesn't have access to it unless they start it themselves. However, crime rates in general have risen, so it could just be that arson is in line with everything else. Whatever the reason for the growing trend, Fritzon believes that arson is invariably an expression of an underlying unhappiness. "There's a quote from Frankenstein, 'I am malicious because I am miserable,' which sums up arson very well," she says. "They are all sad individuals in one way or another, and they use it to express that."

The problem is by no means limited to either Newcastle or this country. Arson task forces have been used in America for some time, but the idea of adapting a similar scheme over here, with the police and fire brigade working together, was untested. "We are the first multi-agency approach," Wells claims. "We're not just tackling the fire, we're trying to get at the root cause and do the social work behind it."

The Task Force operates in the West End of the city, three-and-a-half square miles made up of several "villages", the three main ones being Benwell, Elswick and Scotswood. It is based in a single room in the West Road fire station. Traditionally, the Victorian terraces that run down towards the river provided housing for workers in shipbuilding and heavy engineering, which used to dominate this stretch of the Tyne. The collapse of many industries in the Eighties led to high unemployment. Like many other areas, the West End went into a decline and, in 1991, after a police car chase in which two local youths died, there were riots with buildings being burned down and police and fire crews being petrol-bombed. The rioting stopped after a few days. The fires didn't.

"Arson is a symptom of the area we work in," says Wells. "We work with kids who've come through the Children's Society. They've been cautioned for shoplifting, burglary, car crime, criminal damage, whatever, but you get very few for fire-setting. But when you speak to them they've all lit fires."

Poor social conditions such as poverty, high school "exclusion" rates, and high unemployment (some families are into their third or fourth generation of unemployment) are undoubtedly part of the problem. But these in themselves can't account for why the West End in particular has such a high arson rate. "Nationally, there are a lot of inner-city areas that have exactly the same demographic background. It's definitely got a lot with the kids seeing it as normal and acceptable behaviour, but where does it start from?" Wells sighs. "We just don't know."

The problem is even localised within the West End. Almost all the arsons occur on the south side of West Road, which acts as a sort of natural firebreak. But even here you can pass street after street that looks perfectly normal - neat terraces with curtains and cars parked outside. Then you turn a corner and find yourself confronted with empty houses whose windows and doors have been sealed up with wood or metal sheets. Whether owned by the council or private landlords, it seems to make no difference. In the worst spots entire rows are boarded up to stop would-be arsonists breaking in and torching them. It's become a vicious circle; as the area has become more run-down, more people have moved out leaving more vulnerable empty properties. One small housing development built in the early Nineties is three-quarters empty and already scheduled to be knocked down. Another estate, where pounds 20,000 was spent on each house only three years ago, is already partially demolished. Two-bedroom flats sell for pounds 1,000; three- bedroom houses for pounds 2,000. "You can pick houses up on a credit card," says Alan Percy, driving past another boarded-up row.

When a fire is reported, Campbell and Percy will visit the scene straightaway. The white Task Force car is emblazoned with their logo, part of a policy of high visibility. Sometimes it is obvious that the fire was deliberately started - telephone boxes and waste bins don't combust spontaneously. But the nature of the crime means that the evidence is generally destroyed. When they need further confirmation they call in dog handler Bob Forster whose Labrador, Star, is one of only five dogs in the country trained to sniff out hydrocarbon "accelerants" such as petrol.

Forensic work is still done at police laboratories, but the Task Force's prompt response means that witnesses - bystanders and fire crews - are now questioned at the scene rather than days later. So far there have been 20 prosecutions resulting from their work, but catching the offenders is seen as a short-term solution. More important - and perhaps more difficult - is to stop them doing it in the first place.

The boarding-up policy is one of a number of preventive measures the Task Force has introduced, working with Environmental Health agencies and various council departments. In addition, CCTV cameras have been installed at the worst trouble spots, although they often prompt the offenders to shift to somewhere else. The Task Force also works closely with community groups to organise the speedy removal of rubbish from the street, from household waste to sofas, thereby denying the fire-setters their main source of "fuel". The strategies have proved effective, but the arsonists remain determined. Called out to a fire in an empty house in Scotswood, the Task Force finds that the doors and windows of most of the nearby post-war properties have been boarded-up, but gaping holes, some several feet wide, have been smashed through their back walls and fires set inside. "Geordie open plan," one fire officer quips. Percy is less cheerful. "How do you stop somebody actually breaking a hole in a wall?" he asks, shaking his head.

Talking to the youngsters, it's surprising how open they are about lighting fires. Ask if they know anyone who's started one and the response (once they're satisfied you aren't the "polis") is laughter - who doesn't know somebody? Ask if they've done it themselves and they're only slightly more cagey. "I used to be a little firebug. I set me bed alight once with some matches I got from me auntie's room. And I set a bedroom cabinet alight," one admits. He did it for fun, although he claims he doesn't "mess with fires now". So when did he stop? "As soon as me ma put the lighter under me hand," he says. "Can your mam come and work for the Arson Task Force?" Percy jokes.

In another group, a boy of about 12 is almost defiant when he admits to fire-setting. "Aye, I've done it," he asserts. He points to where an empty house he torched once stood - it's since been demolished. The question of why he did it is met by a shrug. "For a frisk [a laugh]," he says. When asked how he felt afterwards, he considers for a while then says, "Amazing."

It's this attitude, that starting fires is fun (and ordinary), that the Task Force has to overcome. To this end, a lot of time is spent working in the community. At one neighbourhood meeting which Percy attends, arson isn't specifically on the agenda but it's felt that the Task Force's presence at such things is in itself important; not just to maintain a high profile, but to let people see that things are actually being done. The force also works closely with schools and youth agencies, trying to make local children and teenagers see beyond the frisk. One way they hope to do it is by creating diversionary schemes to stop the kids hanging around on the streets. Encouraging them to build a BMX bike track is one example; another is the Young Fire- fighters' Association, a club based at the West End fire station. Ironically, a lot of youngsters who admit to lighting fires also find the notion of a career as a fireman attractive. Fighting fires, it appears, is almost as exciting as lighting them. "Is it good starting fires?" one boy on a street corner asks Percy. It's pointed out to him that the fire service don't start them, they put them out. "Yeah, well," he shrugs, dismissing the distinction, "Is it good?"

"The biggest part is talking to the kids," says Wells. "Because they've been brought up in this cycle where they see their older brothers or sisters or their school friends, or whatever, thinking it's all right to break into a derelict house and torch it; it's socially acceptable. It's trying to educate the kids that it's dangerous and someone's going to get killed. It's the broken window syndrome; you get one broken window in a street and then by the end of it you have a street full of broken windows, houses broken into and burnt down. It's a matter of trying to lift the area back up."

After its first year, the Task Force is becoming accepted. Initially, though, even their own services regarded the idea of a joint approach with suspicion. The fire brigade records all malicious fires, regardless of size, while the police, who tend to regard only the more serious fires as "arson", record far fewer. There was an ingrained lack of communication between the two agencies. "A detective would go to a fire scene and find the contents of the house in the front garden," says Campbell. "And that was the forensic destroyed. But the police didn't realise that the fire brigade had a statutory obligation to make sure that the fire's out, and they do that by pulling everything outside."

Conversely, fire crews could never be sure when - or even if - a police officer would arrive, which didn't always encourage them to wait. "If you know the police will attend, the fire crew will preserve that scene and wait for the scenes of crime officer to come," Percy says. "It's getting that confidence back that the police will attend and treat it seriously."

The early signs are that the Arson Task Force is beginning to have an effect. In the first six months of this year the number of arsons in the West End fell by a fifth, while the number of fires in empty properties has been almost halved. Their success has prompted visits from fire brigades throughout the UK and Europe and even Bahrain and Trinidad. But they know that for them to make any real difference to the area will take longer than the single year left on their remaining funding. If they aren't allowed to continue beyond that, there seems little hope of the West End of Newcastle losing its title as the country's "arson capital". And that, as the events on Chepstow Road earlier this year showed, would be tragic.

"It's definitely worthwhile. There's a lot of really decent people out there, and why should they have to live in streets where 80-odd per cent of the houses are burnt down, boarded up? They're the people we want to make the difference for," says Wells. "We've got to be positive. Yeah, we've got high rates of fire. But at least we're doing something dynamic about it"

Simon Beckett's novel, 'Where There's Smoke', is published by Coronet, pounds 5.99.