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


Additional Information

To see other helpful materials on wildfires, click on the Readiness, Response, and Recovery tabs at the top of this page.


Readiness: Before a Wildfire

Develop a Family Preparedness Plan (PDF) so that all family members will know what to do in case of a tsunami or other disaster. [Also available in Armenian, Korean, Russian, Spanish , and Vietnamese.] Children feel safer when their families have a plan. Include the following in your family plan: 

 Have an evacuation plan, particularly if you live in an area at high risk of wildfire. Each family member should know the concrete steps of the plan, including:

  • What each person will do in an evacuation
  • How you will learn about the status and news of the fire
  • How you will communicate with each other
  • What to do if family members become separated

 For more ways you can protect your home before a wildfire threatens, click here for the American Red Cross site



Response: During a Wildfire

As wildfires can travel swiftly, shifting directions and jumping roads suddenly, people may have to evacuate at short notice. Before you receive orders to evacuate, parents should:
  • Turn on a wind-up or battery operated radio for emergency information.
  • Remind family members you have a Family Preparedness Plan (PDF) and review the steps of that plan with your children so that they know what you are doing to protect them.
  • Keep to your family's daily routine as much as possible, including mealtimes and bedtimes.
  • Monitor and limit the media coverage of the fire, especially for children.
  • Remain calm and answer your children's questions in order to reassure them you are in control.
  • Be ready to evacuate your family and pets if necessary.


When there is an order to evacuate:

  • Follow the instructions of emergency personnel and firefighters.
  • Follow your family evacuation plan and get to safety as soon as possible.
  • Give your family plenty of time to move to a safe area. Remember that property and material items can be replaced, human lives cannot.
  • Tell someone where you are going and what time you left.
  • Tell your children that the firefighters are working hard to put out the fire. This helps reassure them that adults are actively taking steps to protect them, their home, and their neighborhood.


Recovery: After a Wildfire

After a wildfire, 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. For families whose homes were lost in the fire, rebuilding may be a long process.

Children react and recover from wildfires and other disasters in a variety of ways, depending on their personal experience of the fire, previous experiences, and life circumstances. Below are guidelines for parents, caregivers, and educators that will help support the recovery of children after wildfires.

 Page Contents:

NCTSN Resources

Simple Activities for Children and Adolescents 


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Children's Reactions

  • Children will react differently to a wildfire and its aftermath depending on their age, developmental level, and prior experiences. Some will withdraw, while others will have angry outbursts. Still others will become agitated or irritable. Parents should be sensitive to each child's coping style. The following are typical reactions children exhibit following a wildfire or other natural disaster:
  • Fear and worry about their safety and the safety of others, including pets
  • Fear of separation from family members
  • Clinging to parents, siblings, or teachers
  • Worry about another wildfire
  • Increase in activity level
  • Trouble concentrating or paying attention
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Angry outbursts or tantrums
  • Aggression toward parents, siblings, or friends
  • Increase in physical complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Change in school performance
  • Long-lasting focus on the wildfire, such as talking repeatedly about it or acting out the event in play
  • Increased sensitivity to the smell of smoke, sound of crackling fire, and hot dry winds
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of interest in usual activities, even playing with friends
  • Returning to earlier behaviors, such as baby talk, bedwetting, or tantrums
  • Increase in teens' risky behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, using substances, harming themselves, or engaging in dangerous activities


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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, and that their reactions to the wildfires are normal. Although it will be hard finding time, parents can use regular family mealtimes or bedtimes to talk. Issues may come up more than once and parents should remain patient and open to answering questions and clarifying the situation. They should let children know, without overwhelming them with information, what is happening in the family, with their school, and in the community. Parents should answer questions briefly and honestly and ask their children for their opinions and ideas. To help younger children feel safe and calm after talking about the wildfire, parents might read a favorite story or have a relaxing family activity.
  • To help children's recovery, parents should:
  • Be a role model. Try to remain calm so that you can teach your child how to handle stressful situations. Your ability to cope during and after a disaster influences your child's recovery.
  • Offer to answer your child's questions about the wildfires: how they start, how they spread, and how firefighters contain and extinguish them.
  • Monitor adult conversations. Be aware of what adults are saying about the wildfires or the damage. Children listen to adults' conversations and may misinterpret what they hear, becoming unnecessarily frightened.
  • Limit media exposure. Protect your child from too many images and descriptions of the wildfire, including those on television, on the Internet, on radio, and in the newspaper.
  • Reassure children that they are safe. You may need to repeat this frequently even after the wildfire is out. Spend extra time with them, playing games outside, reading together indoors, or just cuddling. Be sure to tell them you love them.
  • Calm worries about their friends' safety. Even though phones may not be working, reassure your children that their friends' parents are taking care of them, just the way you are taking care of your children.
  • Replace lost or damaged toys as soon as you are able.
  • Give extra comfort if your child has lost a pet. When you help him/her mourn appropriately, you help the recovery process.
  • Tell children about community recovery. Reassure them that the government is working hard to restore electricity, phones, water, and gas. Tell them that the town or city will be helping families find housing.
  • Take care of your children's health. Help them get enough rest, exercise, and healthy food and water. Give them both quiet and physical activities. Know what to do to protect those with health risks, particularly children with asthma.
  • Maintain regular daily life. In the midst of disruption and change, children feel more secure with structure and routine. As much as possible, have regular mealtimes and bedtimes.
  • Maintain expectations. Stick to your family rules about good behavior and respect for others. Continue family chores, but keep in mind that children may need more reminding than usual.
  • Encourage children to help. Children cope better and recover sooner when they help others. Give them small cleanup tasks or other ways to contribute. Afterward, provide activities unrelated to the wildfire, such as playing cards or reading.
  • Do not criticize your children for changes in behavior, such as clinging to parents, acting out the wildfire in play, or seeking reassurance frequently.
  • As everyone copes differently, learn what works for each member of your family. Help family members tolerate these differences.
  • Be extra patient as your children return to school. They may be more distracted and need extra help with homework for a while.
  • Give support at bedtime. Children may be more anxious when separating 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 wildfire may have disrupted the family's daily activities (watching television, playing on the computer, and having friends over) or caused the suspension of extracurricular activities (sports, youth groups, dances, or classes). Help children think of alternative activities, such as board games, card games, and arts and crafts. Try to find community programs (at the library, a park program, or a local YMCA) 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.
  • The children of firefighters require special attention and support. Caregivers should reassure children that their parents are trained well for this dangerous job.
  • Keep in contact with your child's teacher and other adult caregivers about your child's experiences and reactions to the wildfires.
  • If, more than six weeks after the wildfire, you are concerned about your child's functioning, feelings, or behavior, contact a mental health provider with experience in trauma or grief. 


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Therapy for Children

  • If children are still having the reactions described above more than six weeks after the wildfire, 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 the child's developmental level and cultural/religious differences
  • Assessment of preexisting mental health problems, including prior traumas and loss
  • Explanation and normalization of the child's psychological reactions to the wildfire
  • Relaxation exercises and other skills to manage reactions to reminders of the wildfire
  • 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 have a tendency to neglect their own needs during a crisis. To take good care of their children, parents must take good care of themselves. Here are some things for parents to keep in mind:
  • Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and get proper medical care.
  • Support each other. Parents and caregivers should take time to talk together and find ways to meet each other's needs.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any life-altering decisions during this stressful postwildfire period.
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo cleanup activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.


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What Teachers Can Do to Help Their Students

  • In a school with many students affected by an wildfire, plan shorter lessons, go at a slower pace, give less homework than usual, and expect a decline in performance for a short time.
  • Identify students who had direct experience with the wildfire, particularly those who suffered losses or had to evacuate, as they are at increased risk for distress.
  • Monitor conversations you and your colleagues have about the wildfire, as you may share perceptions, feelings, and memories in ways that make children feel more anxious.
  • Encourage distressed students to meet with the school counselors.
  • Stay in touch with your students' parents and/or caregivers about academic performance and behavior.
  • Suggest that your school review its crisis and emergency plans in order to better respond to future events.
  • For those schools heavily affected by an wildfire, consider a postdisaster mental health recovery program for students and school personnel. The NCTSN provides information on these programs and other material for educators in the Resources for School Personnel section of this website. 


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What Teachers Can Do to Help Themselves

  • Teachers play an important role in helping their students recover. Simply returning to school promotes the welfare of children and families. Teachers should not neglect themselves as they work with children, adolescents, and families. Here are some self-care suggestions for teachers:
  • Take care of yourself emotionally. You and your family may have had a stressful experience and suffered losses like those of your students. To be able to support them, you must have support yourself.
  • Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and get proper medical care.
  • Communicate with others. Make sure that you and your fellow teachers schedule ongoing times to talk together and give each other support. Teachers might consider covering for each other, so that they can address important personal/family issues that arise.
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo cleanup activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any life-altering decisions during this stressful, postwildfire period.
  • Take care of your own family. Even though you may be very committed to your students, you also need to spend time with and meet the needs of your own family members or friends.
  • If you have many wildfire-related responsibilities, talk with your school administrators about temporarily altering your work schedule.
  • Encourage fellow staff to support each other, providing both emotional support and occasional coverage for school duties. For example, one teacher may cover a class while her colleague meets with an insurance adjuster.


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