In an average year, Carbon County has 27 forest fires. These are not always the result of failure to follow the good practices of Smokey Bear. Most are arson-caused forest fires.
"According to the FBI, 80 percent of arson forest fires are set by juveniles, and 90 percent of these juvenile arsonists come from broken homes," said Wes Keller, forest fire specialist supervisor at the DCNR Bureau of Forestry, Weiser District-18 office in Penn Forest Township.
Three years ago, Keller arrested three children: two older teen females, and a 14-year-old boy who had been watching. He was especially taken with the boy, who seemed unusually bright.
"Juvenile arsonists typically have a backstory of a broken home, drugs or unemployment," said Keller. "Just about every time I've met a juvenile who started a fire, there's a reason for it. It's not just playing with matches, they are looking for help. It's a cry for help and they have no way to express themselves.
"His mom's in jail, his dad disappeared, and he's living with his grandmother," Keller continued. "He has no one to talk to, no where to go. His grandmother would call me and cry, 'Where can I go? He needs help.'
"I didn't know where to send her anywhere for this fire-setting problem," Keller said. "That's when I learned of the Burn Foundation Program."
Keller learned of a program available in Central Pennsylvania, Bucks County, and Lehigh County that has been around for 15 years and claims a 90 percent success rate in rehabilitating juveniles that have on more than one occasion, started forest fires.
"It's a program out of the state Fire Commissioner's Office," Keller explained. "It's for the treatment and/or education of juveniles who start fires."
Since getting involved, Keller has learned something about children and fires.
"Speaking with my volunteer firefighter friends and fire marshals, they have a number of structure fires that are started by juveniles."
Keller has authority to suppress wildfires, investigate their cause, and if it is found to be arson, arrest the perpetrators for what is classified as a felony.
Invariably, the evidence leads to a juvenile as young as 2 years to as old as 18 years with certain exceptions. Keller felt they needed treatment, but treatment was not available in Carbon County. It was in Lehigh County.
"A lot of folks that I deal with have no means of transportation to Lehigh County," Keller noted. "The cost of the program is $200, the program lasts 10 to 12 weeks, and for their parent or guardian to give up the time and money is tough. Many of the people are low income and don't have that kind of money.
"How can we offer treatment to the kids?" Keller wondered. "Otherwise, they will keep lighting fires. Statistically, once a child starts lighting fires, they generally don't stop."
With the help of Joe Greco, a Carbon County youth probation officer and a volunteer firefighter, and with the support of the late Judge David Addy, the program was launched.
"Judge Addy was behind this program," Keller said. "We miss his support. We haven't gotten a replacement for him."
Keller has pulled together a team of 15 volunteers, and with the help of grants from the Bureau of Forestry and the Carbon County Court, the volunteers received three days of training.
After a forest fire is extinguished, Keller begins a forensics investigation which includes the gathering of evidence that may lead to the arrest of the perpetrator often by fingerprint or DNA identification. When brought before the judge, the judge may elect to place the defendant into the Burn Foundation program.
Once in the program, a firefighter and mental health specialist perform a structured assessment with the juvenile and parents in their home. The assessment questionnaire is reviewed by a multidisciplinary team that will determine the appropriate intervention.
"If the assessment indicates education is necessary, we find educators," Keller said. "If the assessment indicates a danger to the juvenile or his/her family, we may call in a mental health specialist, or may request help from the judge."
Although four juveniles have been identified as candidates for the program, Keller feels the program cannot continue with the volunteers until they can obtain liability insurance. He is looking into whether the group should file as a 501-C3 nonprofit. Currently, there is no source of funding for the program.