EXCLUSIVE

Fire, northern beaches: Fire and Rescue NSW's mission to save lives and property

TRAGEDY: A coroner said there was
TRAGEDY: A coroner said there was "ample evidence" a four-year-old boy who died in this house fire had access to matches or a lighter and was in the habit of lighting fires when unsupervised. Picture: Nadine Morton

DURING the past five years 230 fires in the northern beaches have been started by children and while none have been fatal, it's not the same story across NSW.

Statewide, children have started 8102 fires during the same time period and it's left 12 of them dead.

Fires are being lit in homes, bushland and other locations, with a recent spate of fires in and around Dee Why Lagoon drawing the attention of firefighters and police. From July to September last year, 16 suspicious fires were lit in bushland around the lagoon, with another nine fires lit nearby.

Firefighters and police were so concerned that they doorknocked 60 homes in the area to deliver fire safety messages to residents and along with an increased presence of fire trucks and police vehicles in the area the fires stopped.

Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) community engagement unit manager Michael Jay said young people usually light fires in their local area.

"We knew that if we hit that area there was a good chance we'd be knocking on that person's door and we could talk to their parents or we could talk to people who could see the activity in the local area," he said.

An interest in fire is developmentally normal for young people.

Fire and Rescue NSW Senior Firefighter Dr Kamarah Pooley

More recently in Dee Why, a truck parked on Oaks Avenue was set alight five separate times between March 27 and April 16, the truck was removed after the final fire.

In the past three weeks, firefighters have been called to 11 deliberately lit fires amid roadworks materials along Oaks Avenue, FRNSW Dee Why Station Officer Jason Collits said.

"To date all of these fires have been small, involving mostly formwork, bunting being used to fence off council work areas, tarps and rubbish," he said.

Station Officer Collits said while a male was seen acting suspiciously at one of the roadworks fires, authorities don't know who is behind this latest spate of fires.

Why kids light fires

LIFE LESSONS: Fire and Rescue NSW Manly Station Officer Peta Miller with firefighters Jim Randall, Josh Hammond and Scott Hardiman teaching fire safety. Picture: Geoff Jones

LIFE LESSONS: Fire and Rescue NSW Manly Station Officer Peta Miller with firefighters Jim Randall, Josh Hammond and Scott Hardiman teaching fire safety. Picture: Geoff Jones

An interest in fire is common among children, FRNSW Senior Firefighter Dr Kamarah Pooley said.

Dr Pooley completed a PhD studying the youth misuse of fire in NSW and her expertise in the area has assisted firefighters in helping to target at-risk children.

"An interest in fire is developmentally normal for young people," she said. "It's not malicious or deliberate, it's just out of interest really.

"A lot of young people don't have a good understanding of the risks and consequences of fire. Couple a normal developmental interest in fire with a lack of understanding and under a lack of capable leadership or supervision then there's a high risk that young people will misuse fire. It's a behaviour that can cause serious ramifications and can get out of control very quickly."

Dr Pooley said the 8102 fires across NSW are just the "tip of the iceberg" and she fears many more are started by children but their parents don't tell authorities.

"Around a quarter of all child fire fatalities are in a fire that the child started themselves," she said. "People think it's kids being kids, or it didn't cause much damage, or at the other end of the scale they're worried about the ramifications for the young person if they do report it."

A few years ago Dr Pooley was among a crew of firefighters who attended a house fire in which an eight-year-old girl died. "She had a history of misusing fire and her parents had no idea what to do about it," she said.

"There are cases where children have climbed on furniture or moved chairs to get on top of fridges to get matches or lighters because they're just so interested in them."

Targeting at-risk kids

LIFE LESSONS: Manly firefighters teaching fire safety to Freshwater Girl Guides.

LIFE LESSONS: Manly firefighters teaching fire safety to Freshwater Girl Guides.

FRNSW is so concerned about the high number of fires being lit by children that it has launched a free fire safety education program for children aged 3-10 years. The program is in line with the Australian curriculum so can be taught in schools, but it can also be delivered to any group of children in that age range.

The workshops are designed on the back of evidence-based research and are aimed at reducing the misuse of fire and fire-related injuries and fatalities among children.

Freshwater Girl Guides is among the first northern beaches groups to take part under the guidance of FRNSW's Manly Station.

There's no ramifications, the police aren't involved, it's not criminal, it's all about addressing the young person's behaviour and helping the household out in creating a safe environment.

Fire and Rescue NSW Senior Firefighter Dr Kamarah Pooley

Dr Pooley said studies have shown that up to 80 per cent of young people self-report misusing fire at some point in their life.

"We try and educate them in a way that teaches them about fire safety education generally; we talk about matches and that they're tools not toys, they're tools for adults to use," she said. "We talk about camp fire safety, about bushfire safety as well as teach them about fire safety skills they need to keep themselves safe."

Dr Pooley urged anyone who is concerned that their child is misusing fire to contact FRNSW.

"There's no ramifications, the police aren't involved, it's not criminal, it's all about addressing the young person's behaviour and helping the household out in creating a safe environment," she said.

To book a fire safety education program for a group of children visit www.fire.nsw.gov.au/education or call your local fire station.

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