Helping Children Cope With Disaster, Part 1

When my three daughters were young, we occasionally reviewed the “Family Fire Escape Plan.” The girls each had easy-to-open windows in their bedrooms, which were on the ground floor. The simple plan consisted of “Open your window, jump out and we’ll meet on the backyard grass.” Earthquakes were similar: Gather on the stairs under the steel beam (the one the engineer/architect said was “strong enough to hold up a parking structure”).
Most children have a healthy fear at the thought of fire, in addition to a childlike fascination with flashy fire engines and courageous firefighters. Pre-school field trips to the local fire station are an opportunity to view shiny red fire engines up close, try on fire hats and boots, and chat with friendly firefighters who give toddlers a sense of fire-disaster security.
Curious George’s field trip with Mrs. Grey’s class to the fire station (“Curious George and the Firefighters”) of course ended in adventure, fueled by his typical curiosity, and giving children the sense that life can be a lark, even when disaster is at hand.
My granddaughter Lucia and her friend Henry have renamed Central Park in Pasadena “Fire Engine Park” since it is across the street from Pasadena Fire Station No. 31, and houses an antique white fire engine. All playing ceases when the lights flash, the siren wails and that magnificent, shiny, ruby-red monster heads out of the station to answer a call, a pleasant distraction for the 4-year-old friends.
Through the years when they were young, my daughters baked cookies and delivered them to the brave firefighters at the bottom of the street at Fire Station No. 19 (La Cañada Flintridge), thanking them for confronting the frightening fires in the hills above us and preventing our home from going up in flames as well. The girls were gradually beginning to get a more accurate sense of fire’s potential destruction close at hand.
When children are old enough to delight in reading “The Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, there are numerous examples of fires being more of a terrifying threat than a fascinating delight. The books are full of real-life adventures of uncontrolled fires on the open prairies, mysterious barn burnings, houses going up in flames due to upset kerosene lamps and perhaps the worse image — a fire at the school for the blind where Laura’s sister Mary lived. All of these scenarios lacked the secure back-up of a local flashy red fire engine and usually resulted in devastating loss.
My personal fire escape plan from my second-story bedroom was to walk out a door that goes onto the house roof, walk across the roof to an adjoining shed, and jump a few feet from the shed roof onto the neighbor’s driveway. I hadn’t considered that a fire might actually originate in the shed, which it did on Feb. 7 at 2 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday. Note to self: Have an alternate fire escape plan.
My visiting daughter Emily, chatting with a friend in the backyard, spotted the first flame and yelled to call 911, which I did immediately. As a flurry of activity ensued, one adult manned the hose, another plucked grandchildren (ages 4 years and 6 months) out of naps to safety, and another ran to alert adjacent neighbors.
Unlike brave Laura Ingalls who helped Ma fight the chimney fire, I stood in the middle of the street yelling for the fire truck to hurry up, as I watched the flames jump from the shed onto the roof of the main house. Eventually, five fire engines were on scene as well as numerous sheriffs’ cars, and every caring neighbor on the blocked-off street (as well as the vultures who follow fire reports and swoop in to take advantage of blurry-eyed disaster victims).
In spite of all of these resources, the ensuing damage from fire and smoke was staggering, resulting in taking three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a laundry room down to the studs and requiring a major rebuild. The weeks following have been a process of mopping up and sorting through the ashes, assessing loss, managing insurance details, pausing to appreciate the enormous amount of caring and help offered by friends and others, continuing on with the details of daily life, and in the end, accepting what is.
This all explains why I have disappeared from the pages of the Outlook as Parent Coach for three months. As my creativity has gradually returned, so have I, and I’m glad to be back.
Now I find myself living temporarily in a “cool” urban executive apartment near Old Pasadena, right around the corner from Pasadena Fire Station No. 31 with the antique white fire engine. Somehow I am not quite as fascinated with this as are Lucia and Henry, but I do feel gratitude that a shiny, ruby-red monster prevented my entire house from burning down one sunny, Sunday afternoon in February.
Could someone please take cookies to Fire Station No. 19?
To be continued: Helping Children Cope With Disaster, Part II

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