During a Wildfire
While burning, the major hazards of wildfires to children are fire and smoke.
Resulting health effects include:
- Chest tightness or pain
- Shortness of breath
- Burning or stinging of the nose, throat, and eyes
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
Steps to Minimize Harmful Health Effects and Protect Children
- Stay indoors to minimize smoke exposure. Close all windows, doors, and any other openings. Put your air-conditioner on re-circulate if possible, and avoid activities that may add to indoor air contamination, such as cooking with a gas stove. High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters or other room air filtration systems that do not generate ozone are recommended.
- When in a car, keep windows and vents closed. Turn the air-conditioning to re-circulate.
- Do NOT give your child a mask to filter contaminants, since masks do not work when not fitted correctly. Smaller sized masks may appear to fit a child’s face, but no manufacturers recommend their use for children. If your children are in an area with bad air quality, take them to an indoor environment with cleaner air, rather than give them a mask.
- Outdoor activity should be minimized, and athletic and physical education stopped until air quality improves.
- Evacuate the area if recommended by authorities.
- Children with chronic respiratory problems, such as asthma, are at increased risk. Children at increased risk should remain in a clean-air environment, and be kept indoors until air quality improves. They should be monitored closely for signs or symptoms of harmful health effects. If they are showing these symptoms and their usual medications cannot bring them under control, they should be taken to a nearby medical facility, despite the risks of traveling.
After a Wildfire
The aftermath of a wildfire also poses dangers for children.
Take these steps to ensure your child’s safety following a wildfire:
- If you evacuated your home or area, before returning you should:
- Wait to be directed by authorities that it is safe to return
- Know the location of the nearest medical facility
- Be sure water supply, electricity, and phone lines are restored
- Block off unsafe or unclean areas so children can’t go in them
- Make sure your house is structurally sound
- Arrange for removal of ash and debris by professionals or adults (children and adolescents should not take part in clean up)
- Check with your water provider to make sure that your water is okay to drink. If you are unsure about the cleanliness of your water, heat it to a rolling boil for 1 minute to kill potentially harmful bacteria and other microscopic organisms before drinking.
- Keep in mind that loss of power to refrigerators and freezers can cause food to spoil. If the food has been warmed to room temperature for more than 2 hours, throw it out and do not eat it.
- Keep your child away from physical hazards. Potential physical hazards include:
- Debris such as broken glass, wires, nails, wood, metal, plastics, and other objects
- Ash pits, which are holes full of hot ashes created by burned trees and stumps
- Unstable building structures, including flooring, stairways, railings, etc.
- Stored items that may have moved into unstable positions
- Slippery floors o Burned or damaged trees, since they may be unstable and fall
- Roadways, bridges, and other outdoor structures that may be damaged and unstable
- Animals that are deceased, stray, or wild
- Altered automobile traffic as a result of clean-up activities, since there may be heavier traffic in areas where children play or travel
- Ash is a particularly important hazard, as it may be irritating to the skin, nose, and throat, and can be difficult to clean up. Do NOT allow your child to play in ash and clean it up as soon as possible. When cleaning, avoid spreading ash into the air. Wet it down before attempting to remove it. Do NOT use leaf blowers or vacuums. Even if you are careful, it is easy to stir up dust that may contain hazardous substances. Children and adolescents should not take part in the clean-up.
- If your child has had contact with any potentially hazardous substance or has been playing in a fire-damaged area, wash their hands and any other exposed body part thoroughly, including flushing of the eyes. Remove any exposed clothing and wash separately as soon as possible.
- Monitor your child closely, particularly if your child has a chronic respiratory condition like asthma. Watch for symptoms such as coughing; wheezing; chest tightness; burning eyes, nose, or mouth; dizziness or lightheadedness. Move your child indoors or to a cleaner environment and bathe them (follow instructions in bullet above) if they show these symptoms. If your child has asthma or other respiratory conditions, give them their appropriate medication. If the symptoms do not improve, seek medical care right away.
Be alert to your child’s emotional health and psychological well-being. Grief associated with loss, stress, or anxiety from the disaster may cause emotional distress.
Signs of emotional distress can be different depending on your child’s age, and include:
- Clinging behavior and fear of separation
- Uncooperative behaviors (for example, argumentative)
- Physical complaints (for example, stomach aches, headaches, generally feeling unwell)
- Eating or sleeping too much or too little
- Returning to babyish behaviors
- Risk-taking behaviors
- Fatigue, both physical and emotional
- Withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing at home or on school work
- Aggression or outbursts of anger
- Uncontrollable crying
Continue your child’s established routines as much as possible and provide a listening ear. Encourage your child to express feelings through a variety of ways, such as music, art, journaling, talking, or playing with toys or dolls. Avoid exposing your child to excessive or unnecessary TV or other media coverage of the wildfire. Answer your child’s questions openly and honestly, as appropriate for your child’s age. Be patient and remain calm, because children often take cues on how to act based on their parents and their environment. Your reactions communicate an unspoken message to your child, and may add to a child’s feeling of distress.
In some cases, the whole family may benefit from supportive counseling. It is important to remember that it is not a sign of mental illness to accept professional support during times of emotional distress.
Getting Ready for the Worst
How to Prepare for Disasters
Family Disaster Supplies List
Promoting Adjustment and Helping Children Cope (AAP Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council)
Wildfires (AAP Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council)
Emergency Preparedness and Response: Wildfires (CDC)
Fires and Wildfires (NIH)
Talking to Children about Wildfires and other Natural Disasters (American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry)
Safe Cleanup of Fire Ash (California Environmental Protection Agency)