Thursday, November 1, 2007

Child's Accident and the California Fires

It is now known that a ten-year old boy accidentally started the Buckweed Fire in Los Angeles County last week, one of 15 fires that in total forced 640,000 people from their homes. The Buckweed fire charred more than 38,000 acres and destroyed 21 homes and dozens of other buildings in northern Los Angeles County. Five people were injured. The emotional impact of the losses, has surely also had a devastating impact on the Agua Dulce residents as well as those in the surrounding area.

The boy was living in a trailer home on The Carousel Ranch where one of his parents is a ranch caretaker and helps care for the horses. They have lived there for about a year. The Carousel Ranch is a non-profit organization, which is dedicated to, according to its website, “providing developmental therapeutic and recreational programs for disabled and disadvantaged children through horses”. This is a supportive environment to say the least; it is evident from the website. Ironically, and somewhat eerily, at the bottom of the website is a news feed, with the #3 story headlined as: SCV Fire Started By Boy Playing With Matches.

Here’s a description of Agua Dulce, where this boy lived and went to school.

Agua Dulce has the best of everything that California has to offer. Great climate, peacefulness, beauty, opportunity, low to no crime, great school, Air park, and, we're only 30 miles from "the city". … relax, kick your shoes off and loosen that tie; when you come to Agua Dulce you've come home.

If you go to the school district website, and browse the two elementary school pages it is evident that a lot of effort goes into creating a supportive and enriching environment with high academic and behavioral expectations. It sounds like an idyllic community. This boy probably attended one of these schools. He had friends and teachers. It seems like until that fateful day on October 21, he lived a pretty normal life. The director of the ranch has described the family as peaceful and those who know the boy say he has no history of behavioral problems. Even his fireplay was not terribly abnormal. According to Dr. Jeff Victoroff, associate professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at the University of Southern California,

“At least one study suggests that if you take a population of boys between kindergarten and fourth grade, 60% of them have committeed unsupervised fireplay, which is to say that fireplay is a common and absolutely normal part of human development.”

The director of the ranch asked that the boy be removed. He is living with relatives somewhere in California. How do these parents begin to sort out all these issues? Even though he had no malicious intent, his actions had grave consequences. How do they help this child understand the devastation he caused to his neighbors’ and to strangers lives while protecting him from the psychological burden of living with his actions for the rest of his life? “He acknowledged that he was playing with matches, and accidentally, in his words, ‘set the fire’”.

How many times, as adults, have we done something really stupid and wished we could take back that one-second mistake? I remember so clearly wishing I could, while in the emergency room with my then 3 year old daughter who had fallen out of a shopping cart, onto a cement floor, flat on her back. I knew better than to allow her to stand up in that cart and if I could have only taken that second back -- but it was too late. Fortunately she was fine, but it could have changed all of our lives forever.

This boy could not take that second back either and his and his family’s life is changed forever. Although doubtful there will be criminal charges against the child, the parents may be facing civil suits for millions of dollars that they are clearly in no position to handle. Since they have lived in the area for only a year, you have to wonder if they have any close relationships with the people in this community… and it’s that very community that their son set fire to. As much as Agua Dulce is in need of support, and their devastation is not in the least bit minimized, this family also needs assistance.

Sorting this out is not an easy task. How the authorities and citizens of this community handle the upcoming weeks and months will require a lot of soul searching. The losses have already been great.

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