What You Should Know About Fires
Residential fire is a very common disaster that can cause many casualties. According to a 2006 report from the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments responded to 412,500 home fires in the United States, which claimed the lives of 2,580 people and injured another 12,925—not including firefighters.
At least 80 percent of all fire deaths in the US occur in homes and result from human error, such as leaving cooking stoves, candles, or fireplaces unattended, smoking carelessly, or not taking proper care of electrical products. The second leading cause of residential fires and the major cause of fire in commercial properties is arson. The third leading cause of home fires is a faulty heating system; individual homeowners are less likely to have their heating systems maintained than apartment owners are. Having working fire alarms dramatically increases the chances of surviving a fire at home.
Impact on Children and Families
Fires cause emotional distress as well as physical damage. They threaten life and property and are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and terrifying. Children often are affected by what they see during and after a fire, whether or not they are physically injured. The best predictor of postfire distress in children appears to be how frightening the experience of the fire was and the extent of the loss.
In a fire, parents may have seconds to locate family members and pets and get them to safety. Although it may be too risky, they scramble to grab wallets and purses, insurance papers, and family photo albums. Once safely outside, the family faces more problems, such as where they will find immediate shelter, food, water, money, sufficient clothing, and permanent housing.
Unlike natural disasters, where residents of a community suffer similar losses, fire often strikes a single home. The family may have to seek shelter with extended family members, neighbors, or friends. If the family is broken up temporarily, it can result in additional stress.
Not only during, but afterward, a fire disrupts the family routine and undermines the sense of safety. Losing one's home and property can lead to depression and elevated levels of distress, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the aftermath of a fire, families may face financial hardship and medical problems. Parents may feel confused and frustrated as they deal with insurance companies and disaster assistance agencies. Families should not underestimate the cumulative emotional effects of evacuation, displacement, relocation, and/or rebuilding.
After a fire, it is common for people to encounter sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and feelings that remind them of the fire and their losses. Reminders—images of fire in the media, fire trucks and sirens, sights and smells of ash or smoke, hot dry wind, a visit to the site of the fire, and conversations about the fire—can lead to recurring and distressing images and thoughts about the disaster. The physical and emotional recovery process following a fire can be lengthy.
Children and families who experience residential fires may have these common emotional reactions:
- Continuing worry about another fire
- Increased worry about the safety of loved ones, friends, classmates, teachers, neighbors
- Feeling more distress and anxiety when reminded about the fire
- Feeling less secure
- Having trouble separating
- Changes in behavior:
- Children are irritable and disruptive, with more temper tantrums
- Adolescents are angrier and/or more withdrawn
- Parents have increased marital conflict
- Physical complaints (not due to smoke and ash) including headaches and stomachaches
- Poorer school and work performance
- Less interest in pleasurable activities
- More sadness and depression
To see other materials on residential fires, click on the Readiness
, and Recovery
tabs above. For facts about fire safety and preparedness, go to the American Red Cross
web page on fires