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Wildfires: What Parents Need to Know

wildfire wildfire

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Wildfires are unplanned blazes that start in natural areas like forests, grasslands and prairies. These flames can spread quickly to nearby communities. Being prepared and knowing steps to take before, during and after a wildfire can help keep your family safe.​

Before wildfire season

If you live in an area that is prone to wildfires, having a wildfire response plan should be part of your family's disaster plan, including having a disaster kit ready to leave home with if needed.

During a wildfire

The focus should be on protecting the immediate safety of your family.

If a wildfire is burning near you

  • Evacuate the area IMMEDIATELY if recommended by authorities. Be sure to bring immunization records, all medication (taken by each family member) and other disaster supplies with you.

  • If you and/or your children are trapped, call 911.

If wildfire smoke is affecting your area

Children are particularly at risk from exposure to wildfire smoke. This is because they breathe more air relative to their size, are more active than adults. In addition, they are still growing and developing. 

The health effects of wildires on child can include:

  • Chest tightness or pain

  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing

  • Coughing

  • Burning or stinging of the nose, throat, and eyes

  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded

Stay indoors to minimize smoke exposure

Stay indoors to minimize smoke exposure and improve indoor air quality:

  • Close all windows, doors, and any other openings.

  • Set your air-conditioner to re-circulate if possible and avoid activities that can worsen the indoor air, such as cooking on a stove or vacuuming.

  • If you have central air or heating, replace the filter with one rated MERV13 or higher. Whether or not you have central air, consider a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter or other room air filtration system. NEVER use an air filter that generates ozone.

  • When in a car, keep windows closed. Turn the air-conditioning to re-circulate. Replace air filters according to your vehicle maintenance schedule.

Keep track of air quality​

Check on local air quality levels using airnow.gov or PurpleAir and search by your ZIP code. (For more detailed local data you can look at the map at fire.airnow.gov). More information on the air quality index is available here: https://www.airnow.gov/aqi/aqi-basics/. Keep in mind:

  • When the Air Quality Index (AQI) is greater than 150, outdoor activity should be minimized and athletic and physical education stopped for all children until air quality improves. For younger children, or those who are particularly sensitive, these activity recommendations may apply at lower AQI levels. When an air emergency extends beyond a few days, these actions should be considered at lower AQI levels.

  • Children with breathing problems such as asthma are at increased risk. They should stay in a clean-air environment and be kept indoors until air quality improves. Watch for signs or symptoms of harmful health effects, listed above. Children having these symptoms whose usual medications are not helping should be taken to a nearby medical facility, despite the risks of traveling.

If there is poor air quality from wildfires during a heat wave​, prioritize safety from heat as it can be an immediate danger. If your home does not have air conditioning and it becomes dangerously warm inside the house, consider finding a local cooling center​ to keep safe from both poor air and heat.

What about face masks?

Do NOT rely on cloth masks, like those worn for COVID-19​, to prevent breathing in smoke. If your children are in an area with bad air quality, take them to an indoor environment with cleaner air, rather than relying on a cloth mask to protect them. Humidifiers or breathing through a wet washcloth do not prevent breathing in smoke. 

The effectiveness of other types of masks (medical masks or NIOSH-approved N95 respirators) depend a lot on how well they fit. If well-fitted to the face, a child over age 2 will get more protection from a NIOSH-approved N95 respirator than from a medical mask. When deciding whether an N95 respirator is appropriate for your child, factors such as age, developmental status, and special healthcare needs should be considered.

​​An important note about face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic: Some types of masks (including N95 respirators) are being sold only for healthcare use due to supply shortages. Do not try to buy these masks during shortages. Healthcare providers and first responders need this protective equipment to keep you and your loved ones safe. Any time there is wildfire smoke near you, you should always try to improve your indoor air as much as possible. This is especially true during mask shortages.​

After a wildfire

The aftermath of a wildfire also poses dangers for children. 

If you were evacuated from your home

Before returning, you should:

  • Wait to be directed by authorities that it is safe to return

  • Know the location of the nearest medical facility and emergency room that will be open

  • Be sure water supply, sewage, electricity, and phone service are restored

  • Block off unsafe or unclean areas to keep children out

  • Make sure your house is structurally sound

  • Arrange for removal of ash and debris by professionals or adults. Children and adolescents should not be present during site cleanup and should not participate in cleanup activities.)

Once you return to your home:

  • Check with your water provider to make sure that your water is safe to drink. If the water may have bacterial contamination, heat it to a rolling boil for 1 minute before drinking. Remember to let water to cool before giving it to children. If the water may have chemical contamination, use bottled water or use a water filter known to remove the chemicals of concern. For information, see NSF Drinking Water Filters, Testing and Treatment or Environmental Working Group Water Filter Guide

  • 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. For more information about food safety, see here.

  • 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

    • 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, injured, or wild

    • Heavier automobile traffic because of clean-up activities, which can pose a risk near where children play, walk or ride their bikes.

If your area was affected by smoke

  • Be careful around ash, which is a particularly dangerous hazard. Some piles of ash may still be hot and can cause burns. Even cool ash can be irritating to the skin, nose, and throat, and can be difficult to clean up. To be safe:

    • Do NOT allow your child to play in ash and clean it up as soon as possible. Be careful not to track ash and dust into the house with your shoes.

    • When cleaning, avoid spreading ash into the air. Lightly 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. 

    • Adults should wear protective gear such as gloves and masks when cleaning up ash. Indoors, ash and dust should be removed using a wet cloth or microfiber cloth. 

  • Continue monitoring the air quality in your area until the fires are fully extinguished. Changes in wind direction can bring smoke back to an area that had previously been cleared.

  • 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. Flush their eyes, too. Remove any exposed clothing and wash separately as soon as possible.

Psychological effects of wildfires

Be alert to your child's emotional health and psychological well-being. Grief ​associated with loss, stress, or anxiety from the disaster (or witnessing impact on pets and wildlife) may cause emotional distress. The more directly affected the child was by the wildfire, the more likely they are to have emotional distress.

Signs of emotional distress

Signs and symptoms of distrss can be different depending on your child's age, and may can include:

  • Clinging behavior and fear of separation

  • Uncooperative behaviors (for example, being argumentative)

  • Nightmares

  • Physical complaints (for example, stomach aches, headaches, generally feeling unwell)

  • Irritability

  • Fears

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little

  • Returning to babyish behaviors

  • Risk-taking behaviors

  • Fatigue, both physical and emotional

  • Indifference

  • Withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities or friends

  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing at home or on school work

  • Aggression or outbursts of anger

  • Uncontrollable crying

  • Decline in school performance

Keep routines and listen

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, writing in a journal, talking, or playing with toys or dolls. Avoid exposing your child to excessive or unnecessary TV or other media coverage of the wildfire. Ask them how they are doing and if they have any questions or fears. Answer your child's questions openly and honestly, as appropriate for their age. 

Be patient and remain calm, because children often take cues on how to act based on their parents and their environment. If you are calm, your child is more likely to be calm and reassured.

Symptoms of distress may start soon after the event or later, and may last for a prolonged period. In some cases, the child or 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. Wildfires and other disasters can be very stressful, and professionals (such as pediatricians or counselors) can help you learn ways to cope with these stresses.

More information

Last Updated
4/6/2021
Source
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2021)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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