Educating Kids and the Broader Community
Knowledge, just like wildfires, spreads quickly and gains strength as it travels. School officials can increase wildfire prevention, safety and awareness by initiating a learning process within the school community. To do this, school officials should engage students, parents and members of the school community about wildfire dangers. In 2017, schools in California endured widespread damage from wildfires and were granted $14 million in recovery funds as a result.1 While schools focus on rebuilding, taking time to meet with students, parents and the school community will potentially decrease wildfire destruction, injuries and even fatalities in the future.
Communicate With Parents and the School Community
Safety begins with understanding risks. Wildfires don’t care if they strike schools filled with children, homes filled with families or community buildings. This means, everyone needs to be prepared. The first step in communicating dangers of wildfires involves talking to parents and the school community directly. To accomplish this, school officials can host a meeting inviting the community to have an open discussion and ask questions. Important discussion points to include are:2
- The impact of wildfires. The majority of injuries and death occur from smoke and heat exposure. Therefore, the importance of evacuating should be covered.
- Common National Weather Service (NWS) terms used for describing the severity of wildfires. These terms can include “advisories,” “watches,” and “warnings.” The community can receive wildfire updates by listening to the radio or TV stations.
- The creation of a defensible space on properties. Community members can create a space around buildings that is clear from vegetation and debris. Any combustible materials should be cleared, treated or reduced. This way fire will not spread as quickly or easily to the building.3 Parents and the school community should prepare their properties before a wildfire strikes.
- The school’s emergency plans and policies. Parents and members of the community need to understand how the school takes action during a wildfire as it is possible that children will be at school when an evacuation is announced. Parents and schools should exchange their escape plans and evacuation routes.
Wildfires and Health
Wildfires do not only affect landscapes, buildings and neighborhoods, they can affect people’s overall health and well-being. While engaging parents and the school community, be sure to cover the damaging health effects that can result from wildfires. For example, smoke inhalation is one of the biggest health hazards from fires. Wildfire smoke has unique properties that can cause sickness. Particles from vegetation, building materials and other gases all make up the smoke. Symptoms of smoke inhalation include:4
- Chest pain
- Fast heartbeat
- Asthma attacks
- Trouble breathing
- Sinus infection symptoms
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
Children are more susceptible to wildfire smoke because their airways are still developing. They also breathe in more air per pound of body weight than adults. This can result in severe symptoms when exposed to wildfire smoke. If it looks smoky outside, be sure to stay indoors and monitor air quality. In addition to the dangers of poor air quality, also consider the potential for burns. If a burn occurs, cool it down with cold water for three to five minutes.5 Then, cover it with a bandage and call 9-1-1 if necessary.
Less Obvious Dangers of Wildfires
Stopping the fire itself is generally the main focus of emergency responders. However, wildfires pose threats even after they are extinguished. These threats include:6
- Flooding. It’s important to know if your home or school is downstream. Wildfire’s remove vegetation that normally absorb rainfall. This increases flooding risk in certain areas. If your home or school is damaged by flooding, flood insurance can help pay for the damages.
- Erosion. Wildfires burn through trees, plants and leaves on the ground. This leaves soil burnt, exposed and prone to erosion from other forces such as rain.7
- Landslides and debris flow. Both landslides and debris flows can occur at any time. They can happen right after a wildfire or years after. Heavy rainfall is the most likely trigger for both.8
- Poor water quality. Sediments, burned debris and chemicals affect water quality after wildfires burn through areas. Be sure to check water sources before using them for any purpose.
Once parents and the school community are informed, it’s time to educate children, teens and young adults. After all, they are just as much at risk as adults. Students should understand dangers, have evacuation routes memorized and know the risks of wildfires. Consider the following ideas for engaging students in wildfire learning:
- Schedule fire safety field trips. This could be as simple as visiting the local fire station and talking with firefighters about the risks. It could also involve bringing students to see a prescribed fire. These fires are conducted by a natural resource management agency and are necessary to prairie ecosystems. Students can write down what they observe and engage in discussions around wildfires.9
- Plan activities to engage students and promote increased understanding. The National Park Service recommends activities that center around discussing conflicts and decisions needed during a wildfire.10 These activities can be open dialogues to help students work through problems they may face during a wildfire.
- Create handouts outlining wildfire dangers. This can serve as a study guide. Students can study the handout for retention and also share it with family members after school.
- Distribute fire safety posters to kids. They could also design their own posters. They can hang these posters in their house or bedrooms to serve as a constant reminder of safety.
- Download and distribute Junior Fire Marshal® activities to students. Activities, badge cutouts, certificates, coloring pages and safety checklists can all be educational tools for your students. Students can even take quizzes on fire safety to test their knowledge.
Wildfires pose a threat to everyone in the community. To raise awareness about their dangers, all it takes is communication. Schools can reach out to the community about health risks and the lesser understood dangers of wildfires such as flooding. Students can be educated directly as part of their annual curriculum. The more awareness and understanding in a community, the safer everyone will be when a wildfire starts.
1 “California Receives $14 Million Grant for Schools Affected by Wildfires,” May, 2018, https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/California-Receives-14M-Grant-for-Schools-Affected-by-Wildfires-481420261.html
2 “Prepare Your Organization for a Wildfire Playbook,” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1409937019793-e22ea047bb7d748194b5e1cf96f31d9a/prepareathon_playbook_wildfire_final_090414_508.pdf
3 “Defensible Space,” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), September 2008, https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1652-20490-9209/fema_p_737_fs_4.pdf
4 “Wildfire Smoke and Your Health: Do You Need to Worry,” CNN, December 6, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2016/11/15/health/wildfire-smoke-air-quality-health/index.html
5 “Home Fires,” Ready.gov, https://www.ready.gov/home-fires
6 “Wildfire Hazards – A National Threat,” United States Geological Survey USGS, February 2006, https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2006/3015/2006-3015.pdf
7 “Fire Danger: Preventing Erosion After a Fire,” Texas A&M Forest Service, 2018, http://texasforestservice.tamu.edu/PreventingErosionAfteraFire/
8 “Post-Fire Debris Flow,” United States Geological Survey USGS, October 16, 2017, https://ca.water.usgs.gov/flooding/wildfires-debris-flow.html
9 “Lessons: Fire Field Trip,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/fire/wildland-fire/learning-center/educator-resources/lesson-plans/field-trip.cfm
10 “Lessons: Fire in My Backyard,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/fire/wildland-fire/learning-center/educator-resources/lesson-plans/backyard-fire.cfm