An increasing number of families are building their homes in areas prone to wildfires. The National Interagency Coordination Center has a Predictive Services Program that provides wildfire forecasts. It is important to note that a “Fire Weather Watch” means that dangerous fire weather conditions are possible over the next 12 to 72 hours. Extreme temperatures in the United States often cause increased wildfire activity.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has various resources to help support those experiencing the devastating wildfires burning across several states.
Children are especially vulnerable to environmental hazards. They eat more food, drink more liquids, and breathe more air than adults on a pound for pound basis. Children are in a critical period of development when toxic exposures can have profound negative effects and their exploratory behavior often places them in direct contact with materials that adults would avoid.
Wildfires expose children to a number of environmental hazards (eg, fire, smoke, psychological conditions, and the byproducts of combustion of wood, plastics, and other chemicals released from burning structures and furnishings). While wildfires are burning (acute phase), the major hazards to children are fire and smoke. In the aftermath of wildfires (recovery phase) children may be exposed to a different set of environmental hazards involving not only their homes, but also nearby structures, land, and recovery activities. The environmental landscape is dotted with potential hazardous conditions and situations. Some of these are easy to see, such as broken glass and exposed electrical wires, and others are not, such as soil contaminated with hazardous materials like lead or persisting hot spots which can flare without warning.
Key requirements for children to return to an area impacted by wildfires include restored drinking water and sewage removal, safe road conditions, removal of ash and debris, and structurally sound homes. Schools and outdoor play areas should be cleaned, cleared of hazards and made ready for use. Persisting hazards should be isolated and made inaccessible to children. Children, and whenever possible, teens, should only be permitted to return after affected areas have been cleaned up. Children should be the last group to return.
To address the health risks to children from wildfires, the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units, with input from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Environmental Health, have developed the following fact sheets:
The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers steps to follow before, during, and after a wildfire.