190. Boy Starts Huge Fire

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A ten-year-old boy confessed to his parents that he was playing with matches on a windy day in October in southern California. The Santa Ana winds were howling that day, and his carelessness resulted in the Witch fire. That fire destroyed 18,000 acres of woodland and 12 homes. The total damage and the cost of firefighting efforts were estimated at $25 million. Ironically, his parents' house was untouched by the fire.

The authorities did not immediately announce what they would do to the boy or his parents. An official in the district attorney's office said that, probably, no criminal charges would be filed. But the parents would still be liable for civil charges. That is, victims could sue for their losses and rebuilding costs. Suing the middle-class family for millions would be the easy part, though; collecting the millions would be unlikely.

Homeowners disagreed on what should be done. "I don't have a house anymore," said John Ritter. "It will take at least two years to build a new house, and my insurance is only going to pay about half the cost of the new house. Ordinarily, I would say that the boy and his parents ought to be put in jail for at least 10 years. But because their house didn't burn down, I think the law should just allow me to trade property with them. They can have my burned-down house, and I can move into their house. That's fair enough for me."

"We all make mistakes, especially when we're young," said Michael Richards, another homeowner whose house burned down. "I remember setting my sister on fire when I was about 10. I didn't mean to do it, of course, and she jumped into the lake, so she was okay. But it could have been a terrible accident. I think the poor boy has learned a valuable lesson. People should forgive, rebuild, and get on with their lives."


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