Counselling Children after Wildfires: A School-Based Approach/Le Counseling Auprès Des Enfants Après Un Incendie De Forêt : Une Approche Centrée Sur L'école

By Shepard, Blythe; Kulig, Judith et al. | Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy (Online), January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Counselling Children after Wildfires: A School-Based Approach/Le Counseling Auprès Des Enfants Après Un Incendie De Forêt : Une Approche Centrée Sur L'école


Shepard, Blythe, Kulig, Judith, Botey, Anna Pujadas, Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy (Online)


Canadas forests cover almost half of the country's landmass and make up 10% of the world's forest cover (Raulier, Le Goff, Gauthier, Rapanoela, & Bergeron, 2013). As Canada experiences hotter and drier summers, there is an increased risk in frequency and severity of forest fires across most of the country (Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, 2012). Over the past decade in Canada, about 8,000 forest fires have occurred annually, consuming approximately 2.5 million hectares of forest (Beverly & Bothwell, 2011; Natural Resources Canada, 2014). In the summer of 2015, 504 new fires burned 1,226,353 hectares of area in Canada in one week, four times more than the national average for that time of year. Seasonal fire occurrence and area burned were both above the 10-year national average (Canadian Wildland Fire Information System, 2015).

Of most concern are wildfires that start in or reach the outskirts of settled areas, referred to as wildland-urban-interface (WUI) fires. These WUI fires often threaten valuable assets and severely disrupt the lives of local residents; their economic and social costs can be substantial (Taylor, Stennes, Wang, & Taudin-Chabot, 2006). There is increasing concern about the number of vulnerable communities at the WUI and the possibility that the area vulnerable to interface with fire may be increasing (Taylor et al., 2006). For example, in May 2016, the costliest disaster in Canadian history (Evans, 2016) took place in Fort McMurray, Alberta, destroying approximately 2,400 homes and buildings and forcing the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta history (Parsons, 2016) while burning approximately 590,000 hectares ("Fort McMurray wildfire," 2016).

Experiencing wildfires can be alarming for children: the damage to what was familiar, including one's home and community, can threaten a child's sense of safety and normalcy. In the aftermath of wildfires, families can face challenges such as dealing with insurance companies or relocating after their home has been destroyed. A child's psychological recovery in the aftermath of destructive wildfires is typically dependent on the ability of parents and other caregivers (e.g., teachers and school counsellors) to provide the child with emotional support and adaptive coping strategies to help the child return to normal routines (Baggerly & Exum, 2008; Lazarus, Jimerson, & Brock, 2002).

In this article, we build on our work that examined the effects of wildfires on families, children, and the whole community after the May 2011 wildfires in the Slave Lake, Alberta, area (Kulig et al., 2012a, 2012b, 2012c, 2012d; Pujadas Botey & Kulig, 2014; Townshend et al., 2015). The information generated is useful to a variety of professional groups, including teachers and counsellors, who may interact with children that have experienced disasters. Indeed, the latest figures that track disasters show that in 2012, 1.8 million North Americans experienced displacement due to natural disasters (Emergency Events Database, 2013). It would seem likely that, at some stage in their careers, school counsellors will work with students who have themselves experienced a disaster.

The current article focuses on promoting the healing of children affected by wildfires based on results from our mixed methods study outlined in detail elsewhere (Kulig et al., 2012a, 2012b, 2012c, 2012d; Pujadas Botey & Kulig, 2014; Townshend et al., 2015). The present focus is on what school counsellors can do to provide developmentally appropriate interventions to children who have experienced wildfires. We begin with a brief review of the literature on children and their responses to natural disasters, and to wildfires in particular, before briefly outlining the approach to the study. We then offer some of the learning that has emerged from our research, which has implications for school counsellors and personnel in supporting children who have experienced wildfires. …

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