Preparing Your Children for Wildfire
A wildfire is an uncontrolled fire often occurring in open areas like forests, fields or parks. Wildfires often begin unnoticed, but they spread quickly igniting plants, trees and homes. More than four out of five wildfires are started by people, mostly through negligent behavior such as careless use of matches.
Wildfire is a constant threat across the Front Range of Colorado. Drought, high temperatures in the summer and fall, combined with seasonal high winds increase the danger of wildfire. Firefighters, law enforcement and other agencies work together to save lives, protect property and help those impacted by the disaster. First responders can’t do it alone though. Residents, especially those in the Wildland Urban Interface, as we are in Ken-Caryl, must work together with their neighbors before, during and after the next one strikes.
Wildfires cause emotional distress as well as physical damage. People may fear that their loved ones will be killed or injured. Separation from family members can occur, with hours or days passing before being reunited. Neighborhoods and communities may need to evacuate on short notice, forcing people to make important decisions in minutes—when to evacuate, where to go, when to leave and what to bring with them. People may live in shelters for days, not knowing if their homes and businesses are safe. This disrupts their routine and undermines their security. Families with children should not underestimate the accumulative effects of evacuation, displacement, relocation and rebuilding.
In the aftermath, as they find out the scope of the damage, families may learn of injuries to loved ones as well as the loss of their home. Children’s feelings of sadness and vulnerability increase if they lose their homes, pets, valuables and toys.
Post-wildfire problems with housing, food, water, electricity, transportation, work, school, childcare, and daily routines can disrupt living for weeks or months. After a wildfire or other traumatic event, children may encounter sights, sounds, smells, sensations and feelings that remind them of the disaster and their losses.
Reminders—media pictures of the fire, reports of other wildfires, sights and smells of ash or smoke, a visit to the fire site, and conversation about the fire—can lead to recurring and distressing images and thoughts about the disaster. High winds, fire trucks and sirens can trigger memories or feelings well after the event. The physical and emotional recovery process following wildfires can be lengthy.
While the sight and effects of a wildfire can be scary for adults and children, there are steps families can take to protect their children.
1. Talk about wildfires. Spend time with your family discussing why wildfires occur. Explain how to prevent them and what to do if one occurs. If your children may arrive home from school before you, plan and practice the steps to take if there is a wildfire in the area.
2. Know your risk. Learn about our area’s risk of wildfires. Visit www.firewise.org for more information. Ken-Caryl is a FireWise community and many members of the community work to reduce the risks associated with wildfire.
3. Learn caregivers’ disaster plans. If your child’s school or childcare center is in an area at risk from wildfires, find out what its plans are for in case of a wildfire. Ask about its evacuation plans and if you would be required to pick up your children from the site or from another location.
4. Practice evacuation drills. Practice your family evacuation plan so that, if told to do so, you can evacuate quickly and safely. Plan and practice two ways out of your neighborhood as one route may be blocked.
DURING A WILDFIRE:
5. Stay informed. If a wildfire is approaching, listen regularly to local radio or television stations for updated emergency information. Sign up for CodeRed at the Jefferson County website: http://jeffco.us/sheriff/emergencies/code-red/
6. Have supplies ready. During evacuation, wear protective clothing such as sturdy shoes, cotton or wool long pants and long-sleeved shirts and gloves. Lock your home and take your disaster supply kit with you.
7. Avoid smoke and fumes. Keep children, babies and infants away from areas where there is smoke or fumes. Smoke produced by the wildfire may cause breathing problems or contain poisonous toxins.
AFTER A WILDFIRE:
8. Use caution when returning to a burned area. Get fire official’s permission before returning to a burned wildfire area. Look out for hazards such as fallen wires and ash pits and be alert as fire re-ignition may be possible.
9. Clean up safely. Follow public health guidance on safe cleanup of fire ash and safe use of masks. Keep children away from burned sites until cleanup is complete.
10. Limit media exposure. Protect children from seeing too many sights and images of the wildfire, including those on the internet, television or newspapers.
This article appeared in the July 13, 2016 issue of Life at Ken-Caryl.