Nishnawbe Aski Police hope a new training program will help reduce the amount of damage being done by children playing with fire.
"We've basically seen the arson rate in our communities increasing since 2005 — arson with vehicles, houses, forest fires." said Chris Carson, NAPS community policing co-ordinator.
"Basically it’s gone up 300 per cent [in the 34 First Nations NAPS serves]."
Carson said concerns about young people starting fires came to a head after a police truck was set on fire in Eabametoong First Nation in 2012.
Constable Sean Langlois responded to the call in Eabametoong, when his Sergeant’s truck was set ablaze.
"As I drove around the corner and saw it, I was kind of in shock that one of our cruisers was on fire," Langlois said. "I immediately questioned, 'is this just an accident or is this one striking out against the police?'"
But he added, "once we actually arrested the individuals, they said that it was pure boredom and they brought over a can of gas, poured it on the truck and lit it on fire."
Money from Ontario’s Proceeds of Crime Front-Line Police Grant helped establish NAPS ‘Project Firefly’. The program brings NAPS officers, volunteer firefighters and mental health workers from remote Ontario First Nations to Thunder Bay to learn how to teach arson prevention to children.
The Arson Prevention Program for Children is used across the province. A total of 75 per cent of the children who complete the program have no further fire involvement after going through the program, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reports.
Fires destroy buildings, delay planes
"We just think the lack of education [in the First Nations] results in a lot of children not really seeing the impacts on the community," Carson said.
Langlois said children as young as seven are setting fires in Eabametoong with big consequences. Smoke from grass fires delayed planes into the community last spring, he said, and a fire in an abandoned building quashed plans to turn it into a youth centre.
"It’s not simply just lighting a fire and then ‘ha, ha’ run away," Langlois said.
"I’m just hoping we can teach some of them to help the problem slow down. I know it’s not going to stop the problem completely, but hopefully we can slow it down a bit."
Langlois said he sees a connection between the increasing number of children starting fires in Eabametoong and the prescription drug abuse crisis among adults in the First Nation.