What You Should Know About Wildfires
Wildfires are unpredictable, can spread quickly, and can cause massive damage to land, wildlife, homes, businesses, and schools. In 2007, more than 85,000 wildfires in the US burned more than 9 million acres. The March 2006 wildfire in East Amarillo, Texas—that year's largest wildfire—killed 12 people, burned more than 900,000 acres, and destroyed 80 structures.
Impact on Children and Families
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—whether 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. The loss of home and personal items can lead, over time, to depression. Families and communities 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. Their feelings of sadness and vulnerability increase if they lose their homes, pets, livestock, valuables, and mementos. If the fire was set intentionally, people will be more angry and blaming. Like other traumatic events, wildfires are particularly difficult for individuals with special needs.
Postwildfire problems with housing, food, water, electricity, transportation, work, school, childcare, and daily routines can disrupt living for weeks or months. People suffer financial hardships when they lose their homes, businesses, or jobs. Families can be confused as they seek disaster assistance from local and federal agencies or their insurance companies. As a result, signs of stress may appear even months after the fires.
After a wildfire or other traumatic event, people commonly 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.
Children and families who have experienced wildfires may have these common emotional reactions:
- Increased fears and worries, including dread about another fire
- Increased distress and anxiety with reminders of the wildfires
- Decreased feelings of security
- Increased concerns about the safety of loved ones, friends, classmates, teachers, and neighbors
- Separation anxiety
- Disturbances in sleep and appetite
- Changes in behavior:
- Children may become more irritable, with increased temer tantrums and disruptive behavior
- Adolescents may become angry and withdrawn
- Parents may notice increased marital discord
- Parents may be less tolerant of child behavior problems
- Physical complaints (not due to the wildfire smoke and ash) including headaches and stomachaches
- Decline in school and work performance
- Decreased interest in pleasurable activities
- Increased feelings of sadness and depression
To see other helpful materials on wildfires, click on the Readiness
, and Recovery
tabs at the top of this page.