Arson squad to fight fire with Star the labrador

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Neil Sears reports on an attempt to get into the mind of the juvenile fire-raiser

A psychologist is working with Britain's first arson task force to try to cut the number of fires started deliberately by juveniles.

Melanie Wells, 26, has played down claims that she is a female Fitz, of Cracker fame - but she will be drawing up psychological profiles of the youngsters responsible for the storm of arson attacks in Newcastle's deprived West End.

Children will be the prime targets of the arson squad, set up by the fire brigade and police. It will visit schools and seek practical ways to limit fire-raising. And the squad has a secret weapon: Star the labrador, trained to sniff out arsonists.

Nationally, around half of property fires are started deliberately. In Newcastle as a whole the rate is 60 per cent, but in the city's West End last year, 83 per cent of property fires - 429 out of 536 - were malicious. Of the 869 outdoor fires in the area 782, 90 per cent, were malicious.

The launch of the three-member squad comes as the national Arson Prevention Bureau reconvenes its schools working party. There is concern over the rising number of malicious fires in schools which last year cost Pounds 55 million.

"The UK has the highest rate of arson in Europe," said Miss Wells. "Within the UK, Newcastle has the highest rate - and within Newcastle the West End has the highest rate.

"We're trying to reduce the number of arsons, and find out why other areas have similar socio-economic factors, but for some reason don't have the same level of arson."

The picture has been complicated by claims that gangsters had been paying youngsters to torch houses which could then be bought for a pittance. Miss Wells said, however, that simple practical measures could be effective in reducing fire-raising opportunities for children.

"Fires are often started in back alleys where rubbish is left out, or where old sofas are thrown," she said. "Just cleaning the area up could be effective at grass-roots level."

Miss Wells will also be interviewing two convicted arsonists in depth about the motivation for their crimes, and ultimately hopes to create a database of local arsonists.

"Lots of children like playing with matches - but the question we have to answer is why the fascination stays with them," she said. "A lot of people say it's boredom, so we will see what youth facilities are like in the area - but children are bored elsewhere too, and don't start fires."

Star the dog will be helping the arson squad: trained to sniff out inflammable liquids such as meths and white spirit, he will be sent into the crowd of onlookers surrounding blazes.

"The basis is that the arsonist always goes back to the scene," said Miss Wells. "Star will be able to pick them out by picking up the accelerant they used to start the fire."

The fascination children have with fires has long been known to schools, but Karan Haestier, project director of the London-based Arson Prevention Bureau, said the problem was getting worse.

In 1995, 72 per cent of the 1,792 school fires attended by fire brigades nationwide were thought to be malicious - putting schools at the top of the league table for prevalence of fires causing Pounds 250,000 damage or more.

Half of school fires are not reported to the fire brigade, said Mrs Haestier. The arson in schools working party would be co-ordinating a campaign to reduce the total, she said.

"We will be holding seminars around the country aimed at headteachers, school governors and local authorities, and updating our publication How to Combat Arson in Schools," said Mrs Haestier.

Most attacks were by pupils, former pupils or other people with links to the school, she said, adding that research suggested arson was most common in schools which were already affected by graffiti or vandalism.

She warned that a small fire was often followed by a large one - and said that the design of many 1960s schools made them particularly vulnerable.

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