Teen charged in Gardens brush fire
By Pamela Perez

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

PALM BEACH GARDENS The largest brush fire to scorch the north end of the city began as a modest campfire a teen boy started while camping in the woods with friends, police said Tuesday.

The high-schooler has been charged with a second-degree misdemeanor for failing to extinguish a campfire, Palm Beach Gardens police said Tuesday. He will have to appear in juvenile court with his parents.

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Authorities are not releasing his name because of his age, but they said he was not charged with a felony because investigators believe the blaze spread unintentionally.

Investigators believe this is the first time in at least a decade the misdemeanor charge has been brought by city police against an individual.

Rumors among high school teens tipped off investigators about what started the 150-acre brush fire April 23 that burned for three days but kept fire crews vigilant for at least six to ensure the blaze was out.

It started on the southwest corner of Central Boulevard and Hood Road and spread east toward Military Trail across from The Isles development, eventually shutting down three major roads along with exit ramps on Interstate 95.

The blaze had some city officials convinced that one or more youths were behind it because it was set in the woods.

"I suspected all along it would have been a juvenile," said Palm Beach Gardens Vice Mayor Eric Jablin. "It's something an immature person would do."

Investigators followed leads like a "game of telephone" and narrowed it down to a group of "five or six" teen boys who started the fire while they camped deep in the woods.

"There was a lot of talk," said Lt. Bill Brandt, a police spokesman. "It got embellished. We had to sort through a lot of stories, but the majority of the kids cooperated with us."

Investigators would not release details of how the teens started the fire.

"It started out small and then it grew," said Deputy Chief C.R. Brown, a spokesman for Palm Beach Gardens Fire-Rescue. "We're pleased that we were able to identify the source, and we hope other juveniles will learn from these kids' mistake."

In recent years, juveniles have been responsible for a number of serious fires that resulted in criminal charges.

In January 2002, two Jupiter Middle School students were charged with setting fire to the playground at Limestone Creek Elementary School. The 12- and 13-year-old seventh-grade boys were charged with trespassing and arson.

Last June, youths were seen starting a wildfire that charred 38 acres at a Royal Palm Beach nature preserve. The fire came close to nearby homes, but no arrests were made.

And in November, at least one teenager was charged in connection with setting a brush fire that nearly reached the campus of South Fork High School in Martin County.

Officials will recommend to the court that the boy in the Palm Beach Gardens fire be ordered to participate in a Juvenile Firesetter Program, which is a joint city-county program held at the Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue headquarters.

A judge can order a juvenile to attend the Firesetter course. If a juvenile fails to appear, the charge can remain on his criminal record, according to Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue Capt. Don DeLucia.

The onetime four-hour course is considered to be much like a first-offender program, and it teaches children and parents about fire prevention and consequences, fire officials said.

By law, authorities can apply the misdemeanor charge only to the teen responsible for igniting the fire. An arson charge applies only to intentionally setting a fire to a structure or conveyance.

"I hope they don't just get away with a slap on the wrists," said Jablin, the Gardens vice mayor. "This could have cost one of our firefighters their life. This individual has a lot to think about before they go camping again."