While wildfires are a normal part of the dry season in the Pacific Northwest, in some years, it can start to seem like the will never come to end. The huge new Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia River Gorge makes this year an even more challenging fire season than it already has been.
For some kids, the sight and smell of smoke and ash in the air (and the air quality warnings that force them indoors) might also spark worries, frustrations, or questions. Here are some tips for parents and caregivers for talking to kids about wildfires.
1. Experts argue that best ways to start a conversation about a wildfire is by learning your child’s specific questions.
Keep your answers simple and straightforward so as not to spark any new worries or anxieties. Reassure them that they are safe. If you have to evacuate, emphasize safety. Don’t make a promise about their house or room that you can’t necessarily keep.
2. Wildfires present an opportunity to review fire safety procedures with your kids.
As the reports about the Eagle Creek fire remind us, humans are usually the cause of wildfires. Thus, it’s never too early to start having conversations about how fires grow and spread. If your family camps regularly, use this time to talk to your kids about why it’s important to never leave a fire unattended. The US Forestry Service’s Smokey the Bear website has lots of useful tools and tips to help start this conversation.
3. Wildfires also present and opportunity for some science lessons.
For example, even though wildfires can be incredibly damaging, they also play a beneficial role in healthy ecosystems. You can use the wildfire season to learn about how certain species of plants and trees are either dependent on or resistant to fires. Perhaps you might share information about the mighty Redwood Forests, where trees carry evidence of fires from earlier centuries, or the Florida burrowing owl, who need periodic fires to shape their ideal habitat.
Or perhaps you might treat wildfire season as a time to talk about related natural phenomena such as lightning. Since thunderstorms are not a common occurrence in the Pacific Northwest, some kids might not have a clear understanding how lightning can cause a fire. For more on this topic, the National Park Service is a useful place to start.
If you have an especially curious kid, this can also be a good time to talk to them about the science of winds and air travel. Smoke can travel more than a 1000 miles from its original destination. Right now, for example, the state of Iowa is experiencing smoky conditions from the fires in Montana.
Some older kids might be interested in the entire process of wildfires - from their start to their growth to their end. For them, learning about fire containment practices might be especially interesting. The New York Times has a great video series on the science of weather and nature phenomena that is an excellent resource here.
Not only does it video on forest fires provide a detailed explanation for how fires start and get extinguished; it actually talks about why the chemical properties of water, for example, help to contain the blaze. The video is a great place for any budding meteorologists or chemists.
4. Finally, provide opportunities for kids to be helpful.
The current wildfires in the gorge have been challenging for our regional community. It’s easy to feel really helpless when you hear the news of the fire’s rapid spread. But there are some ways to be useful even as the fire still burns. There are several agencies (listed below) taking donations to help those displaced or to honor the volunteers who have been helping out.
Another way to feel useful as a family is to start to plan a family adventure in the gorge for when it’s safe to travel there once again. The fires took a tremendous toll on many businesses that depend on tourism to the gorge for their success. The timing of this fire during the busy Labor Day weekend didn’t help. If your family has a favorite stop on either side of the river, make a date for later this fall or winter to reunite with it again.
On a personal note - Our family is deeply saddened by the Eagle Creek fire disaster. The Columbia River Gorge has long held a special place in our hearts. We have taken to it countless times for therapeutic hikes and runs, for regular walks to heal our hurt and stress, and for a space to be humbled by the wonders of this earth. Thus the Gorge very intimately connects to our larger mission here at Super Nature Adventures of helping to forge long lasting connections to the outdoors.
Right now we are in the process of taking in the unfolding tragedy and like many of you are in a bit of a process of mourning. As the the scope of the fire comes into clearer focus so too will its longterm impact. We plan to be here to help. More details to come as we work them out.
UPDATE: 10% of our sales at our upcoming Nature Party at the Made You Look (Sat, Sept 16) will be going to Friends of the Columbia River Gorge to help them in their efforts. Event details here!
Places where you can help:
This is just a starting list of ways to help out. As the needs change will come back periodically to update the list. Please feel free to add any other organizations we missed into the comments and we’ll add them in. Thank you!
Bryna R. Campbell