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Wildfires: How to talk to your kids about emergency evacuations

Click to play video: 'N.W.T. wildfires: Yellowknife is emptying as evacuees arrive in Edmonton'
N.W.T. wildfires: Yellowknife is emptying as evacuees arrive in Edmonton
Evacuees from Yellowknife and other parts of the Northwest Territories are arriving by plane at the Edmonton International Airport and on the ground, where they're being asked to register at the Edmonton Expo Centre. Sarah Komadina and Morgan Black have team coverage on the Friday noon news. – Aug 18, 2023

If you’re feeling the stress of evacuating your home during the country’s current wildfire emergency, your child likely is too, says one doctor.

A state of emergency was declared in West Kelowna, B.C. Thursday. Residents of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, had until noon MT on Friday to evacuate as smoke continues to billow in the area.

This is Canada’s worst-ever wildfire season with more than 1,000 active fires burning across the country, including 265 in the Northwest Territories.

More than 4,800 properties are under an evacuation alert due to the encroaching McDougall Creek wildfire in Kelowna, with “significant structures” already destroyed by the flames.

Dr. Courtney Howard is an emergency physician based in Yellowknife and the vice chair of the Global Climate and Health Alliance. She says the best way to ensure a child remains as calm as possible during a potential evacuation is for parents to take care of their own mental health.

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“The most important thing to know is that kids really pick up on parental emotion. The more the parents can do to achieve their most calm, the better,” Howard told Global News.

Click to play video: 'B.C. wildfires: Evacuation alerts and updates changing as McDougall Creek wildfire grows'
B.C. wildfires: Evacuation alerts and updates changing as McDougall Creek wildfire grows

Sleep is one factor that can make a difference for handling uncertainty, though it may be hard or sometimes impossible to come by during an emergency. Howard says parents should also try to avoid springing distressing events on kids by keeping them informed as much as possible.

“If you think you might need to evacuate, tell them that ahead of time,” she says. “Say: ‘There is a fire coming. The plan is that we may need to evacuate. When that happens, we will bring this package of things.’”

Howard says it’s helpful for childrens’ anxiety if parents pack their bags in an unhurried manner ahead of time and think about things to bring that the child may want. That could include a favourite toy or blanket, cozy pajamas or anything they typically have with them when travelling to make them feel as safe as possible.

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Informing kids where they’ll be staying and how long the commute will be is also recommended.

“The more you can help them picture what’s going to happen, the better,” Howard says.

If there’s any uncertainty, letting your child know that plans may change along the way and you are working together as a family to take care of one another can make a difference.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), which represents more than 25,000 school psychologists in the U.S. and dozens of other countries, echoes the doctor’s suggestions.

They say that although the nature of wildfires sometimes offer a bit of a warning unlike other natural disasters, the direction and spread of a fire can change abruptly.

“While some people may have hours (or even days) to evacuate, others will have only a few minutes to gather their belongings and leave their homes. Even if evacuation is not ultimately necessary, preparing for the possibility can be frightening for children, particularly if they are seeing images of homes burning nearby on television,” the association says on its website.

Click to play video: 'NWT wildfires: Feds slam Meta for blocking news amid disaster'
NWT wildfires: Feds slam Meta for blocking news amid disaster

If relocating is necessary, NASP also recommends that parents and other caregivers provide opportunities for children to see friends, establish some daily routines and listen carefully to their concerns or fears.

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If a child does end up struggling emotionally, there are signs to look out for.

Howard says the signs vary by age group. Younger kids may cry and act out more, while some kids become more withdrawn. Some may somaticize their symptoms, which means converting what they’re feeling emotionally into physical symptoms. An example is referring to anxious jitters, or “butterflies,” as a stomach ache.

NASP lists thumb sucking, bedwetting and regression in behaviour as symptoms of emotional distress in preschoolers. Elementary school children may display aggression, clinginess and sleeping difficulties, similar to adolescents as well.

Once the the wildfire threat recedes, NASP says children may experience emotional and physical exhaustion. They may feel survivor’s guilt in the months that follow and sights, sounds and smells of wildfire can generate fear and anxiety.

Most children, though, will be able to cope with the wildfire aftermath over time with the help of parents and other caring adults.

“Of course it’s very difficult – it’s difficult for adults even in these situations – but just trying as much as possible to be on top of those things that we know can help our kids cope instead of waiting for them to sort of decompensate at the end of the day, (will help),” Howard said.

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