Impacts of Wildfire on Children
Impacts are defined as the adverse effects of wildfire on children and may include fatalities, injuries, and other effects on children’s physical and mental health, education, family functioning, and social connectedness. Children are defined as persons under the age of 18 years.
Our world is increasingly experiencing wildfires that are both more frequent and intense (IPCC 2018; Jolly et al. 2015; Sharples et al. 2016). This is exacerbating the risk of wildfire disasters, particularly on the wildland-urban interface where ongoing development and population growth is exposing greater numbers of people to potential damage and loss (Radeloff et al. 2018; Strader 2018; Theobald and Romme 2007). There is also increasing evidence that children are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of wildfires. While the earliest studies can be traced back to southeastern Australia in the mid-1980s, the last decade has seen a surge of child-focused research in fire-affected communities. This contribution synthesizes the key findings of that research to provide an overview of the known impacts of wildfire on children – from fatalities and injuries to adverse effects on physical and mental health, educational achievement, family functioning, and social connectedness. It also highlights how a shift toward participatory research methodologies is providing increased understanding of how children are impacted by and cope with wildfires. While knowledge gaps remain, the existing research provides a strong foundation for the ongoing development of evidence-informed policy and practice that serves the specific needs of children before, during, and after wildfire events. Throughout the contribution, unless stated otherwise, the term “children” is used to refer to all persons under 18 years of age.
Fatalities, Injuries, and Health Impacts
Research on wildfire fatalities among children is scarce, and publicly accessible fatality data is rarely disaggregated by age. Hence, not a great deal is known about wildfire fatalities among this demographic group. In the only detailed historical analysis, Haynes et al. (2010) found that among the 552 Australian wildfire fatalities recorded between 1901 and 2008, 48 (9%) were aged 0–9 years and 42 (8%) were aged 10–19 years. Drawing on a range of sources, including reports from coronial inquiries and formal investigations, this analysis also identified the circumstances surrounding 72 of those child fatalities. The most common activity at the time of death had been late evacuation (65%), followed by travelling through the area unaware of the threat (18%), defending a residential property from outside (12%), sheltering inside a residential property (6%), and being en route to defend a property or undertake a rescue (6%). The analysis also found that in most cases, children had been following the decisions of adults.
The only other detailed account of child fatalities is presented in the Royal Commission Report on the 2009 Black Saturday wildfires in Victoria, Australia (Teague et al. 2010). As presented in that report, 173 people died in the Black Saturday wildfires, and 24 (14%) of those were children under the age of 18. All 24 children died on residential properties: 17 children died while sheltering inside a house, and 6 of those were sheltering in the bathroom or laundry; 5 children died outside while fleeing from a house on foot; and 2 children died together with their parents while sheltering in an outdoor spa bath. In all 24 cases, adults had been present on the property, but in many of those cases, there was evidence that adults and children had become separated from each other at some stage during the fire. The evidence that most children who died on Black Saturday were sheltering inside a residential property contrasts with the pattern observed in the historical analysis by Haynes et al. (2010), which identified late evacuation as the most common activity at the time of death. A key finding of the Royal Commission was that many residents had remained unaware of any fire threat until the fire was impacting on their immediate area (Teague et al. 2010). This may explain why so many children died while sheltering inside a house or fleeing from a house on foot.
While systematic research on wildfire injuries among children is entirely absent, a growing number of studies have examined the impact of wildfire smoke and particulate matter on children’s health (Black et al. 2017). A consistent finding across these studies is that wildfire smoke and particulate matter are associated with an increase in respiratory symptoms in child populations and that children with existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma and bronchitis, are most susceptible to the adverse impacts (Cascio 2018).
Impacts on Mental Health and Well-Being
Historically, research on the impacts of wildfire on children’s mental health and well-being has been focused on estimating the prevalence of psychopathology and other adverse emotional and behavioral reactions using standardized quantitative measurements (e.g., Yelland et al. 2010; McDermott et al. 2005; Papadatou et al. 2012). While most of this research has been conducted in Australia (Bryant et al. 2017; McFarlane et al. 1987; McDermott and Palmer 1999, 2002; McDermott et al. 2005; Yelland et al. 2010), an increasing number of studies have been conducted in other wildfire prone countries, including Greece (Kolaitis et al. 2011; Papadatou et al. 2012) and the United States (Langley and Jones 2005; Lewis et al. 2015) and Canada (Kulig et al. 2012). The general finding to emerge across these studies is that wildfires can have serious deleterious impacts on children’s mental health and well-being.
In their pioneering Australian study, McFarlane et al. (1987) examined the prevalence rates for emotional and behavioral difficulties among 5–12-year-old children living in a rural South Australian community that had been heavily impacted by the 1983 Ash Wednesday disaster. Two months post-fire, prevalence rates among fire-affected children were actually lower than those in a carefully selected control group. However, 8 months post-fire, prevalence rates in the fire-affected children had risen significantly and remained high at 26 months, when up to one quarter of the children were exhibiting persistent psychological and behavioral difficulties, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress (e.g., recurring dreams or nightmares about the fire, being upset or worried by reminders of the fire).
A decade later, in a study of 8–12-year-old children who had been directly impacted by a major wildfire on the southern outskirts of Sydney, New South Wales, McDermott and Palmer (1999) found that 6 months post-fire, up to 12% of children were reporting moderate to severe levels of emotional distress, and 14% were reporting symptoms consistent with high trait anxiety. In a subsequent study of 8–18-year-olds from areas directly impacted by the 2003 Canberra firestorm in the Australian Capital Territory, McDermott et al. (2005) found that 6 months post-fire, 41% of children were classified with mild to moderate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a further 28% were classified with severe to very severe PTSD. Additionally, 22% of children scored in the “abnormal range” on a measure of emotional symptoms, more than double that which would be expected in a standard community sample.
In a more recent Australian study, Yelland et al. (2010) examined the prevalence of PTSD symptomology among 8–18-year-olds living in areas affected by the 2005 Eyre Peninsula wildfire disaster in South Australia. At 15 months post-fire, most of the sample reported PTSD symptom levels in the mild range of severity. However, 17% reported symptoms levels in the moderate range of severity, and a further 10% reported symptom levels in the severe range, suggesting that more than a year after the disaster, at least a quarter of the sample were experiencing concerning levels of persistent psychological distress.
In the United States, Langley and Jones (2005) conducted a longitudinal study of PTSD symptomology among 13–16-year-olds affected by the 1998 wildfire in Volusia, Florida. At 3 months post-fire, 54% were classified with mild PTSD, and 14% were classified with moderate to severe PTSD. At 10 months post-fire, the prevalence of PTSD symptomology had decreased: 31% were classified with mild PTSD, and 12% were classified with moderate to severe PTSD. Importantly, those who had been classified with mild PTSD 3 months after the fire had fully recovered at 10 months. However, many of those who had been classified with moderate to severe PTSD at 3 months remained in that category at 10 months, suggesting that those who were more affected initially did not recover as rapidly as those with milder symptoms.
Two separate studies of the 2007 Peloponnese wildfire in Greece have also found evidence of increased psychopathology among fire-affected children. Four months after the fire, Kolaitis et al. (2011) examined the prevalence of PTSD, depression, and anxiety in children and young people aged between 9 and 20 years. Mild PTSD symptoms were identified in 22% of the sample, moderate symptoms were identified in 12%, and severe to very severe symptoms were identified in 12%. Meanwhile, high levels of depressive symptoms were identified in 35%, and high levels of anxiety symptoms were identified in 32%. Six months after that same fire, Papadatou et al. (2012) examined the prevalence of PTSD and depression in 12–17-year-olds. In this study, the estimated rate of “probable” PTSD cases was 29%, and the estimated rate of “probable” depression cases was 20%.
Across the abovementioned studies, efforts have been made to determine the influence of sociodemographic characteristics, such as age, gender, and race, on children’s post-fire mental health. There is growing evidence that younger children may be more susceptible to the development of PTSD and emotional difficulties (Yelland et al. 2010; Kolaitis et al. 2011; Kulig et al. 2012; McDermott et al. 2005). In Yelland’s (2010) study of 8–18-year-olds, there was a significant inverse relationship between PTSD symptoms and age, with younger children reporting significantly more PTSD symptoms than older children. Similarly, in their study of 9–18-year-olds, Kolaitis et al. (2011) found that the proportion of children reporting mild to severe PTSD symptoms was highest among 9–11-year-olds and steadily decreased with age. McDermott and Palmer (2002) also found that children in grades 4–6 reported significantly higher levels of PTSD and depressive symptoms than children in grades 7–12.
Findings relating to gender differences have been less consistent. In some studies, adolescent girls have reported higher levels of PTSD symptomology than boys (Kulig et al. 2012; Papadatou et al. 2012), while other studies have found no difference (Kolaitis et al. 2011; Yelland et al. 2010; McDermott et al. 2005). Complicating this picture further is a study of fire-affected adolescents in Florida, which found that gender differences in PTSD symptoms were moderated by racial background: African American adolescent girls reported significantly more PTSD symptoms that African American adolescent boys, but this gender difference was not observed among their Caucasian counterparts (Lewis et al. 2015). Findings on gender differences for post-fire depression and anxiety are also inconsistent. Some studies have found no evidence of gender differences between boys and girls (McDermott and Palmer 1999, 2002), while other studies have found that girls report significantly higher levels of depression (Sprague et al. 2014) and anxiety (Kolaitis et al. 2011; Sprague et al. 2014; Lewis et al. 2015).
Various studies have also sought to delineate the influence of event-related variables, including the level of threat experienced during the fire and the degree of fire-related damage, loss, and disruption. While inconsistencies in the construction and measurement of event-related variables make it difficult to identify trends across studies, there is evidence that loss and disruption are strongly associated with various adverse psychological reactions. Papadatou et al. (2012) found that the death of a family member or friend, loss or damage of the family home, and the death of farm animals or pets were all associated with an increase in symptoms of PTSD and depression. McDermott et al. (2005) also found that children whose homes had been damaged or destroyed experienced increased emotional problems, while Kolaitis et al. (2011) found that property loss independently increased the odds for high levels of depressive symptoms. Ongoing loss and disruption in the post-fire context (e.g., changes to the daily routine, staying apart from parents, housing instability and adversity, parental job loss, changing schools) has also been associated with increased levels of PTSD, anxiety, and depression (Kolaitis et al. 2011; Langley and Jones 2005; McFarlane et al. 1987; Papadatou et al. 2012; Yelland et al. 2010).
Children’s experiences of the wildfire emergency itself have also been found to influence mental health and well-being outcomes, in both the short and longer term. For example, children’s perceived level of life threat (e.g., believing that self or family member might die) and actual life threat (e.g., injury to self or a family member, getting trapped in the fire zone) during a wildfire has been associated with increased levels of emotional distress (McDermott and Palmer 1999; McDermott et al. 2005), PTSD symptomology (Kolaitis et al. 2011; Lewis et al. 2015; McDermott et al. 2005, Papadatou et al. 2012; Yelland et al. 2010), anxiety, and depression (Kolaitis et al. 2011; Papadatou et al. 2012). McDermott et al. (2005) also found that 6 months post-fire, children who had been home alone during the emergency reported more PTSD symptoms than those who had been with their parents. Most recently, in a 28-year follow-up study of children who had experienced the Ash Wednesday disaster, Bryant et al. (2017) found that being separated from parents during the fire was strongly associated with an avoidant attachment style in adulthood, which was, in turn, associated with increased levels of PTSD symptomology.
With the exception of Bryant et al.’s (2017) study on the long-term impacts of family separation, only one study has examined how childhood exposure to a wildfire influences mental health and well-being in adulthood. In their 20-year longitudinal study of the Ash Wednesday disaster, MacFarlane and Van Hooff (2009) compared adults who had been directly affected as children with an unaffected control group. While there was a slight increase in the rate of anxiety disorders among the fire-affected participants, there was no increase in the prevalence of depressive disorders or PTSD, even though the fire-affected participants had presented as more symptomatic in the 2 years immediately following the fires. These authors concluded that the long-term effect on the mental health of exposed children was small, despite the major losses experienced by the community.
While research on the mental health and well-being of fire-affected children and young people has tended to rely upon quantitative assessments of psychopathology and other adverse emotional and behavioral reactions, a growing number of researchers are employing more participatory, qualitative, inductive methods that privilege the knowledge, perspectives, and experiences of children and young people themselves (Fletcher et al. 2016; Peek et al. 2016; Tobin-Gurley et al. 2016; Resilience by Design Lab/Youth Voices WB 2018; Pujadas Botey and Kulig 2014). This participatory turn reflects a broader paradigm shift in child-focused disaster research (Cox et al. 2017; Eriksen et al. 2018; Fothergill and Peek 2015; Peek et al. 2018; Towers 2015). Underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations General Assembly 1989), explicitly promoted in the United Nations Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 (UNISDR 2015) and supported by theory and research in both child participation (James and Prout 2014) and disaster studies (Wisner et al. 2012), the participatory turn in post-fire research with children and young people is beginning to make a valuable contribution to the way mental health and well-being impacts are conceived and understood.
In the community of Wood Buffalo, Canada, which was heavily impacted by the Horse River wildfire in 2016, young people aged between 14 and 24 participated in a creative action research project and social media campaign, which provided them with a platform for exploring and communicating their mental health and well-being challenges and concerns from their own perspectives (Resilience by Design/Youth Voices WB 2018). Importantly, the challenges and concerns identified by participants extended beyond the narrow scope of PTSD, anxiety, and depression to include drug and alcohol abuse, addiction, self-harm, violence, and social isolation. Furthermore, through the creative action research process, participants identified place-based, culturally sensitive, youth-centered approaches to tackling various mental health and well-being challenges, thereby subverting the “children as passive victims” narrative that has tended to dominate research on children and disasters for the past several decades (Tanner 2010; Fothergill and Peek 2015). For example, fire-related disruptions and delays across the public transport network were impeding the mobility of children and youth and preventing their safe access to work, school, and important social networks. Hence, the improvement of public transport was identified as a priority action for improving the health and well-being of local children and youth.
Following the Slave Lake wildfire in Alberta, Canada, the Youth Creating Disaster Recovery and Resilience project also employed a creative arts-based methodology to gain an increased understanding of well-being impacts as experienced by children and youth aged 13–22 years (Peek et al. 2016; Fletcher et al. 2016; Cox et al. 2017). Through a range of visual storytelling activities, youth were empowered to construct their own discourse on post-disaster well-being, and the results demonstrate the importance of moving beyond purely quantitative modes of data collection and analysis. The research showed how excluding young people from community reconstruction and recovery efforts can adversely impact on their well-being because it circumvents the emergence of activities and initiatives that address their specific needs, rights and concerns (Peek et al. 2016; Cox et al. 2017). Another key finding was that while some adults in the community were concerned that the visual storytelling methodology would have a retraumatizing effect, children and youth reported that sharing their stories had been a positive experience (Peek et al. 2016; Cox et al. 2017; Fletcher et al. 2016). By providing a safe space for children and youth to share their perspectives and experiences, this research also explored how emotional responses to wildfire are mediated by traditional gender norms and highlighted the implications this may have for the mental health and well-being of fire-affected boys and girls (Tobin-Gurley et al. 2016).
Impacts on Educational Achievement
Internationally, there is increasing evidence that natural hazards and disasters exert adverse impacts on children’s education achievement and attainment (Peek et al. 2018). To date, however, only three published studies have focused specifically on the educational impacts of wildfire. The first of these studies examined the impacts of the 1983 Ash Wednesday disaster on children’s educational achievement and school attendance (McFarlane et al. 1987). Data obtained via teacher reports indicated that 8 months after the fire, 18% of fire-affected children were underachieving at school. Twenty-six months after the fire, this figure had increased significantly to almost 25%. Data obtained via parent reports 8 months after the fires also indicated significantly higher rates of absenteeism among fire-affected children. The most frequent reasons given by parents for children’s absenteeism included headaches, stomachaches, and feeling miserable or worried.
More recently, Gibbs et al. (2019) examined the impacts of the 2009 Black Saturday wildfires on children’s academic achievement as measured by standardized tests of reading, writing, numeracy, and language conventions. Comparing test scores from schools located in areas that experienced low, medium, and high levels of disaster impact, results showed that in the high impact areas, the expected gains in reading and numeracy from grade 3 to grade 5 were significantly reduced. However, in writing, spelling, and grammar, the expected gains had been achieved. As suggested by the authors, the reduced gains in reading and numeracy could reflect a shift in student priorities, changes in the home environment, or damaged infrastructure and social disruption in schools. The authors also postulated the reduced gains may have been influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the development of PTSD. Importantly, the study only examined the scores of children who remained in their community after the disaster. Students who experienced the highest levels of impact may have relocated elsewhere. Hence, it is possible that this study underrepresents the extent to which the Black Saturday wildfires impacted children’s academic achievement.
Further reflecting the participatory turn in post-fire research with children, Gibbs et al. (2015) used qualitative methods, including in-depth semi-structured interviews and participant-guided walks, to investigate the impacts of the Black Saturday disaster on children’s sense of safety and stability. Among the small sample of fire-affected children and families, educational continuity and school-related difficulties emerged as key themes. In the years following the fires, many children had dealt with disruptions to their schooling because their school had burnt down and it had taken time to adjust to their new school environment. Other children struggled to cope with key transitional stages, such as the first year of primary school or the final year of secondary school, and parents found it difficult to know whether those struggles were “normal” behavior or a consequence of the fires. There was also evidence that some fire-affected children had been taunted or bullied by other children, and in some cases, this had impelled a change of school.
Impacts on Family Functioning and Social Connectedness
Despite wide recognition that household context plays a fundamentally important role in children’s post-disaster adjustment (Peek et al. 2018), very little research has examined the impacts of wildfire hazards and disasters on family functioning. In one of the few published studies, McFarlane (1987) examined post-fire family functioning in households affected by the Ash Wednesday fires in South Australia. At both data collection points (8 and 26 months post-fire), interactions within fire-affected families were characterized by increased levels of fighting, irritability, and withdrawal, increased avoidance of discussing upsetting problems, reduced enjoyment of shared activities, and reduced time spent together as a family. These styles of interaction were strongly associated with parents’ and children’s increased exposure to dangerous situations during the fire, as well as increased levels of post-traumatic symptomology in mothers in the post-fire period.
The only other known study to examine post-fire family functioning in any detail was undertaken in the aftermath of the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire in Alberta, Canada (Pujadas Botey and Kulig 2014). Qualitative interviews conducted with fire-affected parents and their children 4 to 7 months after the fire found that parents were heavily focused on re-establishing normality, which involved prioritizing meetings with insurance agencies and making decisions about rebuilding the family home. Managing these tasks was both time-consuming and stressful for parents, which affected their ability to address their children’s needs. At the same time, both children and parents expressed a strong need to be physically close to one another, and some families reported that they had become closer and more cohesive because of the disaster.
This same study also identified several ways in which the fire had undermined children’s opportunities for social connectedness (Pujadas Botey and Kulig 2014). Firstly, families who had lost their homes had been forced into temporary accommodation (e.g., trailers and campers, hotel rooms, staying with extended family), which made it difficult for children to have their friends visit. Secondly, many recreational programs for children were suspended because the volunteers who ran those programs were preoccupied with other recovery activities. Thirdly, following the disaster, the Ministry of Education made the decision to keep schools closed for the final weeks of term, which prevented children from reconnecting with their friends before the long summer break.
The existing research demonstrates that wildfires can exert adverse impacts across various domains of children’s lives. It also demonstrates that for some children, the adverse impacts are persistent over time and can have long-lasting consequences. The available evidence on the nature of these impacts and the specific contexts in which they occur provides a starting point for the development of policies, programs, and services for reducing children’s vulnerabilities and increasing their capacities to cope with and recover from wildfires. However, more research is needed. To a very large extent, research in this area has tended to treat children as a homogenous group. While some attention has been paid to the influence of age and gender, there is an urgent need for more nuanced analyses that attend to a wider range of sociodemographic variables, including culture, race, class, religion, disability, and household composition. For example, Indigenous peoples often have an increased risk to the impacts of wildfire, but no known research has examined how Indigenous children are affected. The influence of pre-fire planning and preparedness and differential approaches to emergency response also require thorough investigation. Finally, there is an ongoing need for research that privileges the perspectives of children themselves. While adults may instinctively shield children from discussions about wildfire, this does children a real disservice and goes against recommended best practice. Omitting children’s voices silences their own sense of identity and undermines their capacity for resilience. Having established that children are greatly affected by wildfire, it is imperative that they are given the opportunity to actively participate in wildfire research and risk reduction efforts.
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