Dealing with the realities of life after a home fire is emotional and stressful. We know there’s a lot to think about, so we’ve gathered some tips to help you clean up and get back on your feet. Use the following checklist to figure out how to simply clean dishes after a grease fire in the kitchen or how to clean the exterior of your home after a more serious situation.
From making sure your house is structurally safe to figuring out what can be salvaged, here’s what you need to do after a house fire.
It’s important to have a professional take a look at your home before you set foot in or near your home and attempt to clean, paint or fix any damage. Aside from obvious structural issues, your home could have suffered hidden damage to electrical wiring, wall supports, the foundation, the roof, the deck, the porch or the entrance to your house during the fire.
Safety Tip: Once your home is deemed safe to enter, make sure to wear protective clothing while working on repairs or cleaning. Cover your body with pants and long-sleeve shirts, and wear close-toed shoes with good grip. You should also wear safety goggles, work gloves and a face mask.
While having a professional assess any dangers, make sure to file a claim with your insurance company and have an insurance representative take a look at the damage. They may also be able to provide you with a list of professionals who can help you with cleanup and recovery.
While some items in your home may look perfectly fine after a fire, there can be more damage than you realize. To avoid sitting on a broken couch and falling to the floor or eating a contaminated piece of food, use this list to figure out what to throw away after a house fire.
What do you throw away after a house fire? Here are a few items we’ve deemed as “must toss” when you’re cleaning up your home.
Do not use small appliances, entertainment equipment and other devices until they’ve been checked for water and heat damage. If you’re unsure about their condition, it’s better to toss them than risk starting another fire.
While it is possible to clean your clothes, it’s not always advisable. Smoke and soot contain chemicals that can irritate your skin via touch and your respiratory system when you inhale them. They may also smell from the chemicals used by firefighters, which are also harmful. If your clothes are burned, it’s better to just throw them out.
Aside from clothes, other fabric materials like bedding, rugs, drapes and carpet can absorb the smells and chemicals of smoke, soot and firefighting chemicals. Because they can often be too large to effectively clean, especially if the entire item is compromised, it’s probably best to just get rid of these.
Like clothes and other textiles, fabric furniture pieces and mattresses can hold onto smells and chemicals you might not be able to clean out. Not to mention they could be structurally compromised by the heat or flames. If you’re unsure about the effects of these large items in your home, tossing them is the safest answer.
Makeup and other toiletries have chemicals and minerals that are affected by heat from the fire. While water and tools like fire extinguishers are effective at saving lives and homes, they contain contaminants and toxins that alter the composition of the products in your bathroom, even if you can’t see it. The safest option is to just toss all cosmetics and toiletries and buy new ones.
The potency and effects of medication can be affected by heat, soot, smoke, water and the chemicals used by firefighters to extinguish the fire. Throw them away and ask your doctor for prescription refill or buy new over-the-counter drugs.
Even non-perishable food can be compromised in a fire. While some food, namely sealed and canned foods, may look okay after a fire, high heat from the flames can activate bacteria. And, of course, water and chemicals used to extinguish the fire can contaminate food.
Here’s a list of food items you should throw away after a house fire:
As long as your fridge and freezer stayed sealed and were not harmed by heat or toxins during the fire or firefighting process, the food inside can stay safe for up to four hours. Still, check the items inside and throw out the food if:
When you’re ready to toss burned or otherwise affected belongings, rent a dumpster for hassle-free cleanup so you can focus your energy on other areas of the home.
“Typically, the first step is to have the fire department confirm there are no hazards leftover from the fire or the possibility of a blaze restarting. This way, you can toss damaged items without worrying about a dumpster fire. You can even toss construction debris burned by the flames, like drywall and plywood.”
Dan Morris, Operations Dispatcher | Dumpsters.com
All of the items in the dumpster will go to the landfill to be disposed of as trash. Unfortunately, after a fire, even construction debris can’t be salvaged for recycling because the chemical makeup changes.
Before you begin tackling the inside of your home, open all the windows and use fans to increase air circulation. This will help remove the smell of smoke and chemicals. Then, use a shop vac to remove standing water leftover from firefighting efforts and pull up wet flooring like vinyl and carpet and dispose of them properly. If your carpet is not wet, just stained with soot, you can call a professional carpet cleaning service to lift the stain.
Next, take all wet items outside so you can assess the interior and begin cleaning. You can inspect these items later and decide whether they’re worth salvaging or should be tossed.
Inspect all interior surfaces for soot and clean them off. Don’t forget to check the ceiling. Then, make sure to get your heating, ventilating and air conditioning units and ductwork professionally cleaned. Change the filters when you first return to your home and every month for the next year to keep the air in your home clean.
Use this simple solution to clean the walls, furniture, floors, cabinets and other surfaces in your home:
WARNING: Products containing TSP can reduce odors in fabrics, but TSP can be harmful to your skin, so be careful.
When cleaning surfaces and items in your home, be sure to wear gloves, use a sponge and rinse with clear water immediately.
If you still smell smoke after cleaning, make sure you thoroughly cleaned your HVAC ductwork, which could be holding onto odors. If the smell lingers after that, contact a restoration company about a cleaning procedure called thermal fogging. This will help release smoky odors trapped in the attic and wall insulation. The process involves chemical fog which neutralizes the smell.
According to FEMA, the following actions should be taken:
Use the cleaning solution provided above to wash away soot and ash from walls and windows and take away the smokey smell. When cleaning walls, let them air dry completely, about 24 to 48 hours, before repainting.
Washable wallpaper can also be cleaned using the solution above, but be sure not to get the wall wet behind the paper to help prevent mold and mildew. Use commercial paste to re-paste any loose edges or sections of the wallpaper.
How do you clean your clothes, bedding and fabric chairs? How do you get the smoke smell out of clothes after a house fire? The trick is to treat them ASAP. The longer you wait, the more the stains and smells stick.
How to Remove Soot
To lift soot stains, use the crevice attachment on a vacuum before you get your clothes wet. This should remove most of the ash particles without adhering them to your clothes, curtains, rugs and other fabrics. While still dry, sprinkle baking soda on the stain to help absorb the soot, then vacuum it off after 15 minutes. Repeat this until the majority of the stain is removed.
How to Get the Smoke Smell Out of Clothing
For items that can handle bleach, try this formula:
Stir the ingredients completely and add the solution to your clothing, or apply it using a sponge to larger items like upholstered furniture and tapestries. Rinse with clean, clear water and let dry. Hang what you can outside and give larger items time. Try using fans and opening windows if needed.
If you can’t or don’t want to use bleach, try soaking these items in warm water with detergent or white vinegar overnight. Rinse and repeat until the smell is gone.
Pro-tip: If you can’t get the soot stains or smoke smell out of your clothes, take them to a dry cleaner and ask them to be treated for smoke odors in addition to traditional dry-cleaning techniques. For other items, contact a professional cleaner or restoration company.
If your furniture was not burned in the fire and is still safe to use, you might be able to salvage it. Hardwood furniture, in particular, can be easy to save. Clean it with oil soap you would use for hardwood floors and other wood items. For deeper stains, sand and refinish the furniture. Even if you’re able to remove the stains, you may want to take your furniture to a professional to make sure any lingering chemicals are removed.
You may be asking yourself, is it safe to use dishes after a house fire? As long as your plates, pots, utensils and other kitchen items are thoroughly cleaned, they should be safe to use. However, plastic and wood dishes will likely need to be thrown out, because smoke can be easily absorbed into these materials.
How to Clean Dishes After a Fire
Wash your dishes with hot water and soap as usual, then rinse in the following solution:
While materials like glass and metal are easier to save than fabrics, you shouldn’t keep anything that’s been burned, charred or melted or that’s been deemed structurally unsafe.
Glass will usually uphold in a fire and can be cleaned with vinegar and dish soap, or soak it in white vinegar and baking soda.
Metal may stain, but can usually withstand damage. Clean with vinegar and dish soap, then lightly sand and paint.
Hardwood floors are usually salvageable, unless they’ve been charred or have burn marks. Clean them using oil soap, then sand and refinish if needed.
Now that the inside is becoming more livable, you can focus on cleaning up the outside of your house. Starting from the top, check and clean your gutters, especially if there was damage to your roof. The gutters may have collected ash and other materials, clogging them. Piles of ash can be thrown in your garbage, but consider double bagging to prevent dust clouds. Try to avoid washing ash down storm drains.
Next, wash the walls and windows. As you’re cleaning, be sure to work from top to bottom so that water and debris can run down to uncleaned areas. Use a power washer to remove ash, soot and chemical fire retardants. If the damaged area is small, you may only need to use a stiff brush and a solution of water and borax. If firefighters used Class A foam in their efforts, you can take it off with a paint scraper. Tile cleaner will also remove any stubborn remnants. Wash windows with glass cleaner.
Remove solid debris from walkways and the driveway and use the power washer again to remove soot on these surfaces. Then, lightly water your yard with the garden hose for about a week to help ash recede into the ground.
Now you have all the tools you need to clean up after a house fire and get things back in order. The worst is behind you and, hopefully, with this guide, you’ll have the information you need to live comfortably in your home again.