A wildfire is an unplanned fire in a natural area, such as a forest or grassland. Wildfires most commonly affect the western part of the United States, and they are more likely to occur during the hot, dry months of the summer and fall. However, they can occur anywhere and anytime. High winds can cause a wildfire to travel quickly and change direction quickly.
How Head Start Programs Address Wildfires
Being ready for an emergency takes preparedness, response, and recovery.
All emergency plans should be:
- Specific to the early childhood program
- Relevant to natural, technological, and man-made disasters that may occur where the program is located
- Able to be carried out during the program's hours of operation
- Coordinated with state licensing and emergency officials
- Read, reviewed, and practiced at least every six months
To learn more about making an emergency plan, consult the Emergency Preparedness Manual for Early Childhood Programs.
Although general guidance on wildfire preparation often recommends buying and storing disposable respirator masks, these masks don't work for children and are dangerous for children 3 and younger. They don't fit children's small faces, and they can be a choking and strangulation hazard.
In addition to meeting local requirements, follow the National Requirements and Recommendations for Child Care Emergency Preparedness. These recommendations include these eight planning directions:
- Make and maintain a written emergency plan.
- Maintain the information needed to protect children's and staff's health and safety during emergencies.
- Make and carry out plans and procedures for communicating with families before, during, and after emergencies and for reuniting children with their families.
- Be prepared to evacuate the facility, shelter in place, or lock down the facility.
- Have and maintain the equipment, supplies, and materials needed to care for and evacuate children and staff during emergencies and to communicate with parents, staff members, and community agencies during an emergency.
- Prepare staff members to protect children's health and safety during an emergency.
- Protect the health and safety of children and adults with special needs and chronic medical conditions during an emergency.
- Protect program information and assets to help make sure the program can continue to offer child care after an emergency.
Be ready to respond quickly if local authorities issue an evacuation order because a wildfire is burning near your program.
Even if a wildfire is not threatening local structures, the smoke can remain in the air for a long time. Young children are uniquely vulnerable to the smoke, toxins, and ash that wildfires release, because their lungs are still developing. Young children breathe more air for their bodyweight than adults do, and children tend to be more active, which requires more rapid breathing. Children's lungs take in more particulates from smoke than adults, so it's important to decrease children's exposure to smoke whenever possible.
Children with asthma or other breathing disorders are at particular risk from the smoke and toxins that wildfires produce. Even children who do not have breathing problems may have these symptoms from inhaling smoke:
- Chest tightness or pain
- Shortness of breath
- Burning or stinging of the nose, throat, and eyes
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
To prevent breathing problems in young children when there is wildfire smoke, consider keeping doors and windows tightly shut, limiting outside activities, and buying air cleaners that can help reduce the level of particulates in the air. Air conditioning that limits fresh air intake is also helpful. Information about using portable air cleaners to reduce smoke from wildfires is available from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Wildfires may burn for weeks or even months, so it is usually not practical to completely cease outdoor activity while smoke is in the air. In these cases, it is possible to time outdoor activities based on when air quality is best. You can sign up for air quality alerts from AirNow.gov, which may help with planning.
Recovery may begin after the wildfire has passed and, if an evacuation was ordered, first responders or local agencies decide it is safe to return to the facility. It can last for a few days, weeks, months, or even years. Recovery includes:
- Repairing or rebuilding the facility and restoring services
- Meeting the needs (physical, health, emotional) of children, families, and staff
- Offering a supportive and caring environment that brings normalcy back into children's lives
Structures may be burn in a wildfire or have smoke damage. Assess damage by inspecting indoor and outdoor facilities. Even after local authorities restore services and approve returning to the facility, children should only return when ash, debris, and all smoke damage have been mitigated.
Supporting Children, Families, and Staff During Recovery
Addressing the health and mental health of children, families, and staff are a large part of recovering from a wildfire. Children, families, and Head Start staff may experience stress, grief, and trauma. Reactions to a disaster such as a wildfire vary depending on the person, and the response may last a short or long time.
Work with local agencies and partners to make sure all affected children receive needed health and mental health services as quickly as possible. If any children recently affected by homelessness are enrolled in the program, quickly find out their health status and immediate needs.
It's best to include recovery information in the preparedness plan so that staff are familiar with the materials available for helping families though wildfire recovery. Here are some choices:
- Psychological First Aid is an evidence-informed approach for helping children and families after a disaster. The field manual includes handouts for parents, caregivers, and children from birth to age 5.
- Parent Tips for Helping Infants and Toddlers After Disasters is a handout that lists common reactions of very young children after an emergency, ways to respond to those reactions, and examples of things to say to infants or toddlers.
- Helping Your Child Cope After a Disaster is a tip sheet that gives families and staff tools to help a child after a disaster or crisis.
Tips for Working with Families
The best way to help families through a wildfire is to prepare families before one occurs.
Emergency communication protocols. In writing, tell families how the program will communicate with them in an emergency (e.g., by text, voice calls, emails), what the program's evacuation procedures are, and where to pick up their children. Test these emergency communication systems (text, voice calls, emails) so that families and staff are aware of the processes.
Family home preparation. Instruct families on preparing for a wildfire.
Share recovery resources before a wildfire occurs. Give recovery information to families periodically so they understand the local and national resources available to them after a wildfire. For example, SAMHSA offers a Disaster Distress Helpline (voice or text) staffed by trained counselors.
For Your Family Newsletter
Tailor the messages below to include in your family newsletter:
Why plan for a wildfire? A wildfire can cut off your power or water supply and threaten safety. Young children are less able to deal with the effects of wildfire such as smoke and stress, particularly if an evacuation is ordered.
Listen to the weather service for instructions. The National Weather Service issues a Fire Weather Watch when weather conditions may lead to a wildfire. This means families should be alert and prepared. A Red Flag Warning means that a fire is occurring or likely will occur in the next 24 hours. Local authorities may issue an evacuation order. Be prepared to leave at once to keep from being trapped by advancing fire.
Plan for how to stay informed if there is a power outage. Consider having a battery-operated radio or a hand-crank radio.
Make an emergency supply kit that is readily available. Make a list of things that you cannot store in a bag. In an evacuation, remember the five Ps:
- People (and pets)
- Papers (important documents such as birth certificates or health forms)
- Personal needs, such as diapers, glasses, cash, cell phones, chargers, and food
- Priceless items (irreplaceable mementos or valuables)
If possible, create a "clean room" in your home. The smoke from wildfires burning far from your home can harm your child. Local authorities may ask you to stay inside. Choose a room with no fireplace and few windows and doors, such as a bedroom. Use a portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter in the room. Avoid smoking, burning candles, cooking with oil, or running the vacuum cleaner (unless it has a HEPA filter) in the house during this time.
If you return home after an evacuation, make sure children do not clean up ash. Ash can travel long distances and is particularly harmful if inhaled. Clean up any ash carefully, wetting it first. Do not use a blower or a vacuum to remove ash. Children should not be around ash when it is being removed.
Resource Type: Article
National Centers: Health, Behavioral Health, and Safety
Last Updated: August 10, 2023