A third of arson fires here in Austin are set by juveniles. Investigators say nationally, the amount of damage young fire starters cause is staggering. FOX 7's Noelle Newton shows what the AFD arson unit is doing to put a stop to the dangerous behavior.
A family home burns to the ground, an apartment building is scorched causing residents to be evacuated, and a truck damaged… all the work of juvenile fire starters.
"We have some kids who come in here and they will look at you and say I am completely fascinated with fire. It consumes me,” said AFD Arson Unit Captain Andy Reardon.
Those are chilling words for a man who has dedicated his life to saving those from the destruction of out of control flames.
"It kind of shocks me when kids just get that intense about when they say it absolutely fascinates me when I see that because that's a disturbing trend that we see,” said Reardon.
Captain Andy Reardon oversees arson investigations for the Austin Fire Department.
Out of the 133 intentionally set fires his officers responded to last year, 58 juveniles were identified in fire-setting behavior. Since 2013, the numbers have held steady with 30 to 40 percent of all fires investigated by the arson unit were been caused by juveniles.
- 2013 164 investigations/ 70 juveniles identified
- 2014 129 investigations/ 60 juveniles identified
- 2015 126 investigations/ 35 juveniles identified
Reardon says when caught, it's never the juvenile's first time.
"They start small and they work their way up and they work their way up,” he said.
Reardon showed us photos of a mattress fire that lead to damage to a fence and a truck parked behind it.
"They set fire to the mattress. I remember the kid saying they were trying to burn their name into the mattress,” said Reardon.
All around that fire, Reardon found burn spots.
"They're testing the water to see how it works,” he said.
In the yard he found a burn pile. Such dangerous behavior calls for an intervention.
"It's hard for us to stop that so once they come to the office we catch them and make contact with them that's when we get more stern and say this behavior has got to stop,” said Reardon.
Part of the punishment for getting caught is court-ordered participation in what's called the Juvenile Fire Intervention Program. Arson investigators meet face-to-face with offenders and their parents.
"When they come into the office we don't handle them with kid gloves. We're stern with them about these are the dangers, let's throw all the property damage out there. You could burn yourself, you could burn your friends, and people could die. There's only one person responsible for that. And we get them to say who is that and they say it's me and most of them feel remorseful about it,” said Reardon.
Reardon says the program is effective. Since his participation began eight years ago, he's had zero re-offenders.
"We're trying to stop the behavior immediately,” he said.
State law allows for firefighters to cite those between the ages of 10 and 17 for unauthorized burning should the fire not rise to the level of an arson. Parents get the bill which is in excess of $700 dollars.
If you would like to report a tip about an unsolved arson fire in Austin, call fire investigators at 512-974-0240 or email email@example.com.