by Rebecca Wicks
On the night of December 4th Jamie Lewis had to ask her daughter Jenna, 11, and her son Jackson, 9, to choose.
“I told them there is a fire, and we were going to evacuate and they needed to fill up their suitcase with their most favorite possessions,” said Lewis. “I told them I loved them, that we would be fine, but I needed them to focus.”
Like hundreds of others, the Lewis family’s home burned to the ground, and today are left with essentially nothing. Her story about that evening mirrors many others, gathering valuables in the dark after the power went out, consoling children, being taken in by gracious friends. They have not returned to Ventura yet, but are planning to soon when school resumes. As expected, many of the Lewis family decisions are being based on their children.
“We will return to Ventura, it’s where the kids’ activities and friends are,” said Lewis. “We’re excited about getting them back into their schedule.”
How children react and recover from fires and other disasters depends on their personal experience of the fire, previous experiences, and life circumstances. In addition to damage or destruction to their home and possessions, victims of residential fire may also have to overcome financial hardship, relocation, and loss of pets. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), fires can cause serious emotional distress to children and families. And, while most families will recover over time, the length of the recovery process depends on how well families cope with post fire stresses and on the amount of support and resources available through family, school and their community.
Mica Beving, his wife Jess, and his 11-year-old daughter Amelia were winding down for the evening when they first noticed smoke outside their residence, the former Hawaiian Village Apartments.
“I figured this was just another brush fire like so many I’ve seen in the past,” said Beving, who said renters insurance was not available for the apartment building as it was too close to the hillside, and the exterior of the place not completely fire resistant. “After the power went out and as the smoke began to grow in intensity and ashes rained down more and more, that’s when we started to pack.”
Beving put three boxes in his daughter’s room and told her to fill them with things she wanted to keep.
“I came back and they weren’t completely full, and I tried to tell her to fill them up more,” said Beving. “I think because I was trying to be so calm, she didn’t understand the severity.”
As his family packed, the smoke and ashes grew to the point they couldn’t open their eyes much and could only breath if they had something over their mouths.
“We tried to pack more but by 12:30am we had to go,” said Beving who could then see flames at the back of the property and around the houses near them.
Today Beving and his family are together and safe, staying with his parents in Camarillo. Their primary goal, like the Lewis family, is to secure housing so he, his wife and daughter can resume some sense of normalcy. Beving said he and his daughter have talked about the fire a couple of times. They talk about the things they wish they would have taken. Beving told his daughter to make a list of things she wished she still had, so she won’t keep thinking about them.
Research has shown children and adolescents can react in a variety of ways when dealing with a fire including experiencing anxiety, nightmares and sleep disorders. The American Psychological Association (APA) reminds parents that a child’s ability to cope is highly influenced by how their parents and caregivers deal with crisis. Because children often look to adults for guidance, support and information, it is important to work to toward coping successfully in order to serve as a positive role model.
“You are likely their main source of security during this time,” the APA website states. “Be open to children sharing their thoughts, concerns and ideas. Encourage them to return to their normal routines, including playtime. Be careful not to use your children as a way of venting your fears and worries.”
Ready.gov, a Department of Homeland Security preparedness site advises the following:
1. Encourage dialogue. Listen to your kids. Ask them about their feelings. Validate their concerns
2. Answer questions. Give just the amount of information you feel your child needs. Clarify misunderstandings about risk and danger.
3. Be calm, be reassuring. Discuss concrete plans for safety.
4. Shut off the TV. News coverage can create confusion and anxiety. Repeated images can be harmful. If your children do watch TV or use the Internet, be with them to talk and answer questions.
5. Find support. Whether you turn to friends, family community organizations or faith-based institutions, building support networks can help you and your children cope.
The last recommendation is one many families in Ventura may need to consider when thinking about long term effects on their children. While Lewis’ kids have had difficulty sleeping since the fire, she is particularly concerned about long terms effects.
“I’m learning as we go, right now they don’t want to talk about it,” said Lewis who is worried the effects on her kids will be more profound when they come back to Ventura. “I have a feeling it will hit them in a month, then in 3 months, and then time will tell.”
Jamie and her husband Jake have been back to the site of their home only once, and don’t intend to take their kids to the area for quite some time. The family moved into the home barely four months ago, and hadn’t gotten around to securing renters insurance.
“We were so busy,” said Lewis, having started working again recently, their daughter starting a new school this fall. “We’re now starting from ground zero.”
For more information on how to cope with children in the aftermath of a fire visit: www.ready.gov, www.apa.org or www.nctsnet.org.