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How to Talk to Kids about Wildfires

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As news of Colorado’s wildfires dominates the media, I remember a decade ago when our family had been on “pre-evacuation notice” for two days. When the county sheriff came to our door and said, “This area is being evacuated. You have a half-hour to get your things,” we knew what to do. But when our 4-year-old Niko asked, “Is our house gonna burn down?” I wasn’t so sure.

Fortunately, my response, “We’re moving away from the fire to be safe and firefighters will do everything possible to protect our home,” smoothed his furrowed brow.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, my words were the honest reassurance Niko needed to hear. Still, the Academy urges parents to talk to their kids before their family faces a natural disaster. These conversations can be difficult, as they touch on fears we avoid. The following suggestions should ease your dialogue and soothe worried minds.

Explore “What’s Important?” Ask your crew what toys or treasures they really want to have if they had to leave home suddenly. Let them know your priorities. Talk about ways the family would become a team, gathering clothes, medicine, packing the car. Ideally, have this conversation prior to wildfire season.

Be Prepared. Take your kids on a “Fire Chief’s Tour” through the garage or around the yard in search of highly flammable items- the lawn mower, shelves of used paints, a case of motor oil. Look for places to store them away from wind-blown sparks. Explain that when wildfires threaten fire experts recommend removing all volatile flammables from the property, most likely in a vehicle far from harm’s way. Point out trees and shrubs growing close to your home, suggesting, “Let’s be fire-safe and trim them.” (For information about a home’s “defensible space” see http://www.southwestcoloradofires.org/default.asp)

Remain calm and reassuring, but be realistic.
It’s fine to tell your kids they are safe in their homes. But you can’t promise that a wildfire will never scorch it.

Be honest. When faced with evacuating your home, let your child know there’s a chance fires will burn all or part of it. But add, “Firefighters know what makes a wildfire grow and will do their best to keep it away from our house.” Even if your family is not wildfire threatened, talk to your crew about how they might feel when forced to leave their home.

Create opportunities for your child to ask questions. The unusually quiet child may be burning with fears or misunderstandings. Let him know you too have questions about the fire, opening a dialogue that calms both of you.

Talk about “Brave” events in your child’s life. Remind him of the time he and his sister took a plane to grandma’s “all by themselves.” The time she didn’t cry when the doctor put a cast on her arm. Such courage-reminding conversations will instill their self confidence regardless of the fire-threat.

Use age-appropriate words and information. A 4-year-old will understand that “firefighters have stopped some of the fire” while his 14-year-old sister will comprehend “it’s 15% contained.”

Be prepared to repeat your explanations. It may be a child’s need to hear your reassurance again, or perhaps she’s having difficulty understanding or accepting the information.

Help your child express himself in other ways. Provide drawing materials, allow plenty of free play with toys, read imaginative stories. During stressful times children need to communicate, often in ways that surprise you.

Let kids know they’re not alone. Tell your kids there are many people helping families when something scary happens. Talk about the special “helpers” that will provide them a bed to sleep in, food to eat and plenty of toys.

Avoid excess media coverage. All your reassurances may be dispelled when your child sees television images of a wildfire consuming a home. Instead, point out news of families helping other families in times of crisis.

Encourage participation in support efforts. During a wildfire communities typically rally to provide immediate comforts for families and firefighters. Have your kids donate a toy or bring canned foods to the rescue center, so they get to feel they’re a part of the firefighting effort.

Remember, “Kids will be Kids.” Regardless of smoky skies, helicopters thundering overhead and the constant onslaught of “fire updates,” let your kids play, perhaps the best therapy for all of us.

Looking back on our family’s natural disaster drama, I realize Niko had been spared, like our home, of a wildfire’s consequences. However, it’s important to recognize that some children faced with similar or more frightening situations may need professional counseling.

Maureen Keilty, author of Best Hikes With Kids Colorado (Mountaineers Books, June 2012) has coped with wildfires threatening their home, flooded creeks to cross while backpacking, and discovering “We’re lost!” at 5 p.m. on backcountry ski trip with 5 kids. She’s also a Southwest Colorado Fire Ambassador.
AP Photo/The Denver Post, RJ Sangosti

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