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How parents and teachers can calm kids' fire anxiety

Sonali Kohli and Nina Agrawal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Parenting News

LOS ANGELES -- During this Santa Ana wind season, 12-year-old Nicholas Ladesich tends to go to bed worrying about what might burn overnight. He often has dreams of waking up in his old house that burned down in the Woolsey fire last year.

But he awakens instead in the living room of the one-bedroom guest house he shares with his brother and parents. He demands that his mom turn on the news to monitor possible fires while his 15-year-old brother Lucas uses an app to check the strength and direction of winds.

"When he hears the wind, he goes straight to 'there's going to be a fire,'" Alex Aspron-Ladesich, said of her younger son. After losing their Malibu home, she said, all four family members have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and receive counseling through a wellness center at Malibu High School run by the local Boys and Girls Club.

On Monday, the Ladesich family got the text message that Malibu schools were closed because of the Getty fire, and anxieties crested again. Lucas said it's hard to concentrate on schoolwork amid the threat of another fire. As the one-year anniversary of the Nov. 8 Woolsey fire approaches, the Santa Anas, the fires and falling ash are bringing back bad memories.

Across the state, families have fled fires in the dark of night amid howling winds; thousands have huddled in evacuation centers, their cars packed with valuables. It smells like smoke, and ash drifts through the air. School days are canceled, routines disrupted and children are suffering mentally -- even if they're not physically at risk from a fire, mental health counselors and parents said.

"I can see an uneasiness in their daily living. (It's a) concern that comes up when we hear there's going to be Santa Ana winds. That's our main red flag," Aspron-Ladesich said of her sons.


During the Saddleridge fire in the San Fernando Valley earlier this month, Cleveland High humanities magnet coordinator Jennifer Macon wore a mask while she directed traffic as parents rushed to pick up their children. Amidst the logistical confusion, Macon said, she saw the mental health effects among students.

Students, she said, were experiencing panic attacks. On a day with teachers absent, heavy smoke and pervasive fear, three students stayed in her office because they just couldn't handle the stress on campus, she said.

"Coming into the day I didn't anticipate that," Macon said.

School health care workers said the increase in destructive annual wildfires comes at a time when anxiety among young people is more prevalent than in the past.


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