FIRE chiefs are so concerned about soaring arson attacks in York and North Yorkshire that a special youth worker is being recruited to tackle the problem.

Recent figures revealed that the county suffered a 32 per cent rise in arson attacks - the highest increase in the UK - with more than 1,000 incidents in a single year.

Schools have often been targeted, with Joseph Rowntree and Westfield schools in York among those hit in the last year or so.

The Costcutter Store at Dunnington was gutted last year after arsonists set a rubbish skip alight, and an Acomb man woke up recently to find flames licking at his windows after a skip in his driveway was torched.

Another problem last autumn was youngsters blowing up wheelie bins and telephone boxes with fireworks.

Blazes have also been started on some occasions so that firefighters can come under missile attack after being lured to the scene.

Only last month, a gang of youths hurled missiles at firefighters dealing with a skip fire which had been started deliberately at the Beckfield Lane rubbish dump in Acomb.

Sometimes youngsters attack firefighters so that police will be called and distracted from other matters, says the county fire service's arson task officer, Mick Brighton.

He says firebugs are not always teenagers. Primary school children and even toddlers as young as two have been caught starting fires.

Now North Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service is recruiting an arson reduction youth worker to work with young people to raise their awareness of the potentially fatal consequences. The worker, who will be paid £15,500 for a 30-hour week with cash from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, will also address the "personal issues" leading them to start fires.

News of the appointment comes after the Evening Press revealed last week how police were blaming a hard core of some 200 youngsters for the bulk of York's antisocial behaviour, and how education chiefs were warning that a small number of school pupils' behaviour was more challenging than ever before.

A series of radical new measures are under way to tackle misbehaviour, both inside and outside the school gates.

Mr Brighton said the youth worker, to be based at fire service headquarters in Northallerton, would allow the fire service to finally get to the root of what was behind some young people's fascination with starting blazes.

"This is a big problem," he said. "This is an issue right across York and North Yorkshire. We have got to reach out to these young people. We have to sit down and work with them and find out what the problems are.

"This is a vital post and should help to emphasise the problems of arson. We have got to engage the youth of today."

Updated: 10:52 Tuesday, June 15, 2004