Wildfires have the potential of traumatizing young people who have seen, heard, or directly experienced their power and fury. With mass media now operating continuously and in real time in reporting natural disasters, such as the 2007 and 2003 wildfires, teachers should assume the following:
- All students will have questions about the wildfires, such as, what caused them, when will they stop, how can they be prevented, what happens if fire destroys a family's home?
- Most if not all students will have gaps in their knowledge about wildfire causes and impacts, evacuation, fire fighting, property loss, and loss of human and animal life.
- Students who have directly suffered loss as a result of the wildfires, or who know someone so effected, will experience a range of emotions including fear, anxiety, grief, and depression. Physical and behavioral responses can include nausea, dizziness, and changes in appetite and sleep pattern as well as withdrawal from daily activities. Responses to trauma can last for weeks to months before people start to feel normal again.
Traumatic events, such as wildfires, affect survivors, rescue workers, and the friends and relatives of victims who have been involved. They may also have an impact on people who have seen the event either firsthand or on television.
Teachers should do the following:
- With assistance from school officials, try to determine which students in your classroom experienced the wildfires directly in terms of evacuation, property loss, death of a relative or acquaintance, or death of a pet or livestock. These individuals should be afforded every consideration in terms of school attendance, completion of school work, and the option of "opting out" of any type of activity that might reinforce event trauma. Likewise, these individuals should not be made a focal point or asked to "comment on their traumatic experiences." Finally, these individuals shoud be monitored for possible post-traumatic stress reactions, and if present, referred to trained professionals for follow-up and appropriate intervention:
- Symptoms of re-living the traumatic event including flashbacks, nightmares, and extreme emotional and physical reactions to reminders of the event. Emotional reactions can include feeling guilty, extreme fear of harm, and numbing of emotions. Physical reactions can include uncontrollable shaking, chills or heart palpitations, and tension headaches.
- Symptoms of avoidance include staying away from activities, places, thoughts, or feelings related to the traumatic event or feeling detached or estranged from others.
- Symptoms of increased arousal include being overly alert or easily startled, difficulty sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, and lack of concentration.
- Communicate to all students that it is alright and normal to feel upset when something bad or scary happens.
- Encourage students to express feelings and thoughts, without making judgments.
- Provide factual infomation, and regular updates, about the wildfires.
- Engage students in learning more about fire ecology, and how widlfires affect our local habitats
- Return to daily school routines as soon as practicable.
Teachers should know the following:
Teacher Resources for Responding to a Crisis
Crisis Response Box (PDF; 18pp.)
"The box" is a unique product of the California Attorney General and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction's Safe Schools Task Force, developed to help schools, local law enforcement, and emergency services personnel prepare for a school emergency.
Best Practices in School Crisis Prevention and Intervention
Edited by S.E. Brock, P.J.Lazarus, and S.R. Jimerson. This 2002 publication is available from the National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814. The price for non-members is $110.00. Leading national and international experts contributed to 37 chapters on topics that include school safety, identification of troubled youth, suicide prevention, natural disasters, school and war, and children and grief.
Annualized school-based education materials, greatly supported by Master of Disaster from the American Red Cross, will teach age-appropriate emergency information and preparedness skills for students in grades Kindergarten through twelve. Team SAFE-T is the first all-hazards approach of its kind in America. Available in eight languages: English, Arabic, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.
9-1-1 for Kids
Teaches children how to save lives and property through the proper use of 9-1-1, the nation's universal emergency telephone number. Youngsters who complete the 9-1-1 for Kids® classroom program will know: When to use 9-1-1 and when not to; How to place a 9-1-1 call and; What to say in case of a police or fire or medical emergency. Armed with this basic information about 9-1-1, young children will be able to: Call for help when they need it for themselves or for others. Assist in saving lives and property. Avoid costly abandoned or prank calls which tie up the 9-1-1-dispatch system. Available in English and Spanish.
Masters of Disasters
The American Red Cross, with generous support of the Allstate Foundation, has developed a curriculum that not only teaches students about disaster safety, but helps teachers meet their required objectives as well. We know that teachers have a lot to cover to meet the learning objectives prescribed by their school system. That's why we've developed the Masters of Disaster curriculum-to help teachers integrate important disaster safety instruction into their regular core subjects such as language arts, math, science, and social studies. This is not additional material for teachers to work into an already packed school day. Rather, the Masters of Disaster curriculum, which is aligned with the National Education Standards, supplements the lessons teachers are already teaching. At the same time it provides students with information to help them prepare for disasters and stay safe during and after a disaster in their home, school, or community. Available in English only.
The Teen SERT program is an in-class, curriculum-based program that provides students with knowledge on the effects of natural and human-caused disasters and their emotional, social, and economic impacts. It builds decision-making and problem solving skills and strategies to help students make informed decisions regarding readiness, response, recovery and mitigation efforts to reduce loss of life and property. Available in English only.
FEMA for Kids
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has developed lecture materials, suggested classroom exercises and sources of more information in support of disaster reduction. Available in English only.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2007). Emergency preparadness & response. Retrieved November 21, 2007 from http://emergency.cdc.gov/masscasualties/copingpub.asp