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Back-to-school outdoor learning out in parts of fire-ravaged B.C.

Forest Fridays off the academic menu as students prepare for classes in aftermath of fires
The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above a lakefront home, in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. As students across British Columbia gear up for their return to school next week, parents in communities devastated by wildfires are grappling with what that may look like for their kids.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Alesha Campbell’s five-year-old daughter Maddie used to look forward to “Forest Fridays,” when she and kindergarten classmates would walk through the woods behind Rose Valley Elementary in West Kelowna.

But now most of the forest has been burned by the McDougall Creek wildfire, part of a fire complex that has damaged or destroyed at least 189 properties. It came close to destroying the school, too.

“Their playground and the field is fine, but their outdoor forest playground is gone and that was a really big part of the school,” Campbell said. “It’s really hard to lose that.”

As students across British Columbia gear up for their return to school next week, parents in communities devastated by wildfires are grappling with what that may look like for their kids. Some pupils have been evacuated from their home communities, while 17 B.C. schools were still under evacuation orders or alerts, the Education Ministry said Tuesday.

Campbell said she and her husband took Maddie to see the damage near the school on Monday. They thought it was important for her to see it before classes resumed.

“It gives us a chance to kind of understand what she’s walking into,” Campbell said in an interview.

West Kelowna fire Chief Jason Brolund announced Monday that fire officials had lifted the evacuation order for the school, allowing teachers to return to begin organizing their classrooms.

“The school was saved through the hard work of firefighters from BC Wildfire, and the fire departments who were there,” he told a Monday wildfire briefing. “That’s a major milestone for the community.”

Campbell said her family made their trip to the school after the order was lifted and were “astonished” to see that firefighters were able to save the building. But, she said the blaze destroyed most of the trees apart from a small section directly behind the school.

She said Maddie, who begins Grade 1 this fall, was upset to see how much of the woods was gone.

Alicia White, the mother of two school-aged daughters, said her 10-year-old was more concerned about the fate of Rose Valley Elementary than her home when they were evacuated on Aug. 17.

“She was just really concerned about Rose Valley and what that meant going into Grade 5 because she’s super excited about it,” White said, noting they, too, have returned to their West Kelowna home.

Officials from Rose Valley Elementary School and the Central Okanagan School District did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

However, both Campbell and White said parents got a message Monday after the evacuation order was lifted, saying the school is setting up the necessary precautionary measures and is prepared to work with families still affected by the wildfire.

Grade schools across the province are scheduled to begin classes Tuesday and while there are still more than 400 wildfires burning across the province, Education Minister Rachna Singh said “all school structures in wildfire-affected areas remain standing and undamaged.”

She said, however, the ministry recognizes that many students, teachers and staff may not be in their home communities when the school year starts.

“Our priority is responding to the emergency and keeping people safe,” Singh said. “We will continue to co-ordinate with school districts to ensure school communities are prioritizing the health and safety of students, teachers and staff.”

The ministry said two public schools are under evacuation order as of Tuesday, while 12 public schools and three independent schools remain under alert. Those numbers fluctuate as the situation changes, it added.

It is working with all wildfire-affected districts to “ensure they have alternate plans for their students, should their school not be able to open, or should their students still be evacuated from the area,” the Education Ministry said.

“This could look like supporting students to start school in a neighbouring district where they are currently staying, moving students to another building to start their learning, or moving to remote learning through one of the Provincial Online Schools.”

The ministry said it is also supporting school districts to cope with wildfire impacts, including providing counselling services for both students and teachers, particularly those who have lost their homes to wildfires.

Campbell said their Lakeview Heights property was outside the boundaries for evacuation orders, but her family had a “front-row seat” to the wildfire carnage.

“The fire started cresting the ridge just above our house that came down to the Rose Valley, the lake and reservoir and whatnot, and it started to crest that mountain,” she said in an earlier interview on Aug. 19.

Campbell and her family temporarily left the area, but returned three days later on Aug. 21.

“The first two nights, (Maddie) had nightmares and she woke up in the middle of the night because she’d seen the fire on the ridge, but that’s kind of gone away now,” Campbell said Tuesday.

Lindsay McCunn, a professor of psychology at Vancouver Island University, said “climate anxiety” is becoming increasingly common.

“Sometimes climate anxiety can tip over into feeling very helpless and very fearful and an entering into a stage of grief and sometimes PTSD for some people,” she said. “Some groups are a little bit more vulnerable to that.”

One such group is children, she said, adding that nightmares, increased clinginess to trusted adults, flashbacks of the traumatic event and social withdrawal are common symptoms.

Wildfires, particularly when people are evacuated, may result in a loss of safety, security and rootedness, which can exacerbate these negative feelings, she said.

McCunn said the field of study is still new, but warns anxiety about wildfires and evacuations may linger for children and encouraged parents and teachers to be open to discussing their children’s feelings.

“Climate change is a mental health concern. It’s more than an environmental phenomenon, it’s also a risk to mental health,” she said. “As seasonal wildfires become more of an issue with climate change, they might have a recurrence of these stressors and this anxiety.”

Campbell said they’ve taken the fires as an opportunity to teach Maddie about first responders, respecting nature and the importance of helping other community members.

“It’ll be OK. Kids bounce back from anything pretty quickly, so I guarantee the first few weeks of school that’s all (the kids) will probably be talking about, but I think she’s learned a lot from it anyways and it’s not all bad.”

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