Residential Fires


What You Should Know About Fires

Residential fire is a very common disaster that can cause many casualties. According to a 2006 report from the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments responded to 412,500 home fires in the United States, which claimed the lives of 2,580 people and injured another 12,925—not including firefighters.

At least 80 percent of all fire deaths in the US occur in homes and result from human error, such as leaving cooking stoves, candles, or fireplaces unattended, smoking carelessly, or not taking proper care of electrical products. The second leading cause of residential fires and the major cause of fire in commercial properties is arson. The third leading cause of home fires is a faulty heating system; individual homeowners are less likely to have their heating systems maintained than apartment owners are. Having working fire alarms dramatically increases the chances of surviving a fire at home.

Impact on Children and Families

Fires cause emotional distress as well as physical damage. They threaten life and property and are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and terrifying. Children often are affected by what they see during and after a fire, whether or not they are physically injured. The best predictor of postfire distress in children appears to be how frightening the experience of the fire was and the extent of the loss.

In a fire, parents may have seconds to locate family members and pets and get them to safety. Although it may be too risky, they scramble to grab wallets and purses, insurance papers, and family photo albums. Once safely outside, the family faces more problems, such as where they will find immediate shelter, food, water, money, sufficient clothing, and permanent housing.

Unlike natural disasters, where residents of a community suffer similar losses, fire often strikes a single home. The family may have to seek shelter with extended family members, neighbors, or friends. If the family is broken up temporarily, it can result in additional stress.

Not only during, but afterward, a fire disrupts the family routine and undermines the sense of safety. Losing one's home and property can lead to depression and elevated levels of distress, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the aftermath of a fire, families may face financial hardship and medical problems. Parents may feel confused and frustrated as they deal with insurance companies and disaster assistance agencies. Families should not underestimate the cumulative emotional effects of evacuation, displacement, relocation, and/or rebuilding.

After a fire, it is common for people to encounter sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and feelings that remind them of the fire and their losses. Reminders—images of fire in the media, fire trucks and sirens, sights and smells of ash or smoke, hot dry wind, a visit to the site of the fire, and conversations about the fire—can lead to recurring and distressing images and thoughts about the disaster. The physical and emotional recovery process following a fire can be lengthy.

Children and families who experience residential fires may have these common emotional reactions:

  • Continuing worry about another fire
  • Increased worry about the safety of loved ones, friends, classmates, teachers, neighbors
  • Feeling more distress and anxiety when reminded about the fire
  • Feeling less secure
  • Having trouble separating
  • Changes in behavior:
    • Children are irritable and disruptive, with more temper tantrums
    • Adolescents are angrier and/or more withdrawn
    • Parents have increased marital conflict
    • Physical complaints (not due to smoke and ash) including headaches and stomachaches
    • Poorer school and work performance
    • Less interest in pleasurable activities
    • More sadness and depression


Additional Information>

To see other materials on residential fires, click on the Readiness, Response, and Recovery tabs above. For facts about fire safety and preparedness, go to the American Red Cross web page on fires.


Readiness: What to Do Before There is a Fire

Families can do the following to be prepared for the event of a fire:

  •  Make sure your children know emergency phone numbers. Write phone numbers on the Family Preparedness Wallet Card (PDF) and make sure each family member carries a card. [Also available in Armenian, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese.]
  • Teach children evacuation skills to use in the event of a fire. See steps recommended for evacuation in Response: During and Immediately After a Fire. Try to identify two ways to escape from every room.
  • Make a Family Preparedness Plan (PDF) that includes a safe meeting place away from the building or home. The meeting place could be a tree across the street or a neighbor's house. Make sure that every person understands where to gather in case of an emergency. [The Plan is also available in Armenian, Korean, Russian, Spanish , and Vietnamese.]
  • Practice the Family Preparedness Plan so that children and adolescents know exactly what to do in the event of a fire.
  • Teach children how to stop, drop, and roll in case their clothing catches on fire. Children who know their family evacuation plan and have practiced how to "stop, drop, and roll" may recover more easily after a fire.
  • Install fire alarms in every bedroom and check frequently to make sure the batteries are working.
  • Have one or more fire extinguishers in working order. Your local fire department can train you in the appropriate use.
  • During the winter holidays, be sure to:
    • Keep the Christmas tree stand full of water, checking it each day.
    • Put up your tree away from fireplaces, all heat sources, doorways, and other exits.
    • Check to make sure your decorations, including artificial trees, are fire-retardant and noncombustible.
    • Keep holiday candles away from material that can burn.
    • Have your chimney and flues inspected and cleaned before each winter.
    • Burn wood only (not pine boughs) in the fireplace. Do not burn paper, gift wrap, or other packaging materials. Always use a fireplace screen.
    • Avoid using the fireplace if you hang stockings on your mantelpiece.


Response: During a Fire

In the event of a fire, if possible, call 911. Parents should remain as calm as possible, as their panic or distress can make their child's experience even worse.

If children or other family members are in their bedrooms, they should follow these steps to evacuate.

If the door is hot:

  1. Cover the crack of the door.
  2. Crawl to the window
  3. Wave a shirt out the window
  4. Yell for help

If the door is not hot, open the door about two inches. If you feel hot air blowing in:

  1. Cover the crack of the door.
  2. Crawl to the window
  3. Wave a shirt out the window
  4. Yell for help

If there is no hot air blowing into the room:

  1. Open the door wider
  2. Begin crawling to outside door
  3. Continue crawling towards the outside door and out of the building

If your path is blocked:

  1. Crawl back to the room you came from
  2. Close the door
  3. Crawl to the window
  4. Wave a shirt
  5. Yell for help



Recovery: After a Fire

After a fire, most families will recover over time. The length of the recovery process depends on how well families cope with postfire stresses and on the amount of support and resources available through the family, school, and community. How children react and recover from fires and other disasters depends on their personal experience of the fire, previous experiences, and life circumstances.

In addition to damage or destruction to their home and possessions, victims of residential fire also may have to overcome financial hardship, relocation, and loss of pets. They may have to obtain medical care. If the fire's cause was arson, there may be continued safety concerns.

Children's functioning may be influenced by how their parents and other caregivers cope during and after the fire. Children often turn to adults for information, comfort, and help. Parents and teachers should try to remain calm, answer children's questions honestly, and respond as best they can to requests. Children and adolescents do better when they understand the event they have just gone through.

Below are guidelines for parents, caregivers, and educators that will help support the recovery of children after a fire.


Page Contents:

NCTSN Resources

Arson Fires: Tips for Parents on Media Coverage (2009) (PDF)

Parent Guidelines for Helping Children Impacted by Arson & Fires (2009) (PDF)

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Children's Reactions

It has been reported that after a fire, almost 25 to 35 percent of burned children develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while approximately 50 percent display a significant number of PTSD symptoms. Children perceive fires as uncontrollable, so they may need extra reassurance to feel safe. Children will react differently to a fire depending on their age, developmental level, prior experiences, and how the fire occurred. Some will respond by having nightmares or other sleep disturbances, while others will have angry outbursts or feelings of guilt. Still others may become agitated or irritable. Parents should attempt to remain sensitive to each child's reactions. The following are typical reactions children might exhibit following a fire:

  • Fear and worry about their safety or the safety of others, including pets
  • Fear of separation from family members
  • Clinging to parents, siblings, or teachers
  • Worry that another fire will occur
  • Increase in activity level
  • Decrease in concentration and attention
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Angry outbursts or tantrums
  • Aggression to parents, siblings, or friends
  • Increase in physical complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Change in school performance
  • Long-lasting focus on the fire, such as talking repeatedly about it or acting out the event in play
  • Increased sensitivity to reminders of the fire
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of interest in usual activities, even in playing with friends
  • Regressive behaviors, such as baby talk, bedwetting, or tantrums
  • Increase in risky behaviors for teens, such as drinking alcohol, using substances, harming themselves, or engaging in dangerous activities
  • Guilt or feeling responsible

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What Parents Can Do to Help Their Children

Parents should spend time talking to their children, letting them know that it is okay to ask questions and to share their worries. Although it will be hard finding time to have these conversations, parents can use mealtimes or bedtimes to tell children about their living arrangements, going to school, childcare, and work. They should answer questions briefly and honestly and ask their children for their opinions and ideas. Parents should remain patient and open to answering questions more than once. After talking about the fire, parents might read a favorite story to younger children or have a relaxing family activity to help everyone feel more safe and calm.

To help children's recovery, parents should:

  • Be good role models. Try to remain calm, so your child can learn from you how to handle stressful situations.
  • Monitor adult conversations. Be aware of what adults are saying about the fire. Children may misinterpret what they hear and be unnecessarily frightened.
  • Limit media exposure. Protect your child from graphic depictions of the fire, particularly those on television, the radio, the Internet, and in the newspaper.
  • Reassure children they are safe. You may need to repeat this frequently even long after the fire is out. The Red Cross has a disaster preparedness coloring book (PDF) that can help children learn more about fire safety.
  • Review the family preparedness plan. Some children will fear another fire, so reviewing and practicing the plan can help increase their sense of safety.
  • Spend extra time with your children, playing games outside, reading together indoors, or just cuddling. Be sure to tell them you love them.
  • Replace lost or damaged toys as soon as you are able.
  • Take care of your children's health. Help them get enough rest, exercise, water, and healthy food. Give them both quiet and physical activities.
  • Return to regular daily life as soon as possible. Even in the midst of disruption and change, children feel more secure with structure and routine. If you can, keep to regular mealtimes and bedtimes.
  • Maintain expectations. Stick to your family rules about good behavior and respect for others. Continue family chores or have children help out where you are staying, but keep in mind that children may need more reminding than usual. Children cope better and recover sooner if they feel they are being helpful; afterward, however provide activities that unrelated to the fire, such as playing cards or reading.
  • Be extra patient once children return to school, particularly if they must attend a school in a new location. They may be more distracted and need extra help with homework for a while.
  • Tell your child's school administration and teacher about the fire and maintain communication with them, so that they can help make returning to school a supportive experience for your child.
  • Give support at bedtime. Children may be more anxious at times of separation from parents. Spend a little more time than usual talking, cuddling, or reading Start the bedtime routine earlier so children get the sleep they need. If younger children need to sleep with you, let them know it is a temporary plan, and that soon they will go back to sleeping in their own beds.
  • Help with boredom. The fire may have disrupted the family's daily activities (watching television, playing on the computer, and having friends over). If you must relocate away from your neighborhood, your child may miss out on extracurricular activities, like sports or dance classes. Help children think of alternative activities to do, such as board games, card games, and arts and crafts. Try to find community programs (at the library, a park program, or a local community center) with child-friendly activities.
  • Keep things hopeful. Even in the most difficult situation, your positive outlook on the future will help your children see good things in the world around them, helping them through challenging times.
  • Seek professional help if your child still has difficulties more than six weeks after the fire.

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Therapy for  Children

If children have difficulties for more than six weeks after the fire, consult a mental health professional for an evaluation. If the clinician recommends counseling, keep in mind that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has the strongest evidence for helping children recover from a disaster. Therapy for children should typically include:

  • Family involvement
  • Awareness of developmental level and cultural/religious differences
  • Assessment of preexisting mental health problems and prior traumas and loss
  • Explanation and normalization of the child's psychological reactions to the attack
  • Ways to manage reactions, including those to reminders of the fire
  • Problem-solving and anger management skills as needed
  • Helping to maintain normal developmental progression
  • Increasing positive activities and rebuilding social connections

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What Parents Can Do to Help Themselves

Parents may have a tendency to neglect their own needs during a crisis. In order to be able to take care of their children, parents must take care of themselves. Here are some things parents should keep in mind:

  • Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, and get proper medical care.
  • Support each other. Parents and other caregivers should take time to talk together and provide support as needed.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any unnecessary life-altering decisions during this stressful postfire period.
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo clean-up activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.

There are a few steps to help with financial recovery. These include:

  • Contact your insurance agent as soon as possible. Report how, when, and where the damage occurred. Provide a general description of the damage.
  • Prepare a list of damaged or lost items and provide receipts if you can.
  • If you are able, keep damaged items or portions of those items until the claims adjuster has visited your home. Do not throw away anything you plan to claim without discussing it first with your adjuster.
  • Keep receipts for all additional expenses that you incur, such as lodging, repairs, or supplies.
  • Make copies of ALL documents and pictures given to your claims adjuster or insurance company.

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What Teachers Can Do to Help Their Students

Teachers play an important role in helping their students recover from a fire. Simply returning to school promotes the welfare of children and families. Try the following suggestions to assist you in your work with children, adolescents, and families if they experience a fire:

  • Talk to the child's parents to find out what secondary stresses they are experiencing following the fire, such as finding housing, financial hardship, injuries to family members, or loss of family pet. In this way, you can be sensitive to the extent of the distress, and able to refer the family to community resources.
  • Find out about the child's experience of the fire, so that you will be aware of what might trigger reminders for the child, including curriculum content, field trip experiences, or other school activities.
  • Be flexible with regard to the amount of homework and requirements; for example, accept handwritten assignments for a child whose family has lost their computer.
  • If a child has relocated to your school temporarily, due to the family home being uninhabitable, maintain a packet of information on the child's progress to send to the original school district upon the child's return.
  • If a child comes to school with burns or wounds, address both the needs of the child and of the other students. Speak with the administration and faculty about ways to support the injured child and reintegrate him or her into the school community. Provide opportunities for the other students to learn about the injured child's experience, so they can be supportive rather than ridiculing.

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