"Our lives will never be the same." -Barbara Warden, California house fire survivor.
After a house fire it can be extremely difficult to gather necessary action steps from the rubble. The costs associated with fire survival are disheartening, disorienting, even devastating. We've created this guide so that individuals who have suffered loss in a house fire have a clear understanding of what to do next and how to start putting their lives back together.
First Steps After a Fire
- If necessary, find shelter
- Contact your insurance company
- If you're renting, contact the owner or property manager
- If you need assistance with major restorations to your property, contact your local fire and water damage restoration company
- Remove as many valuables as possible, taking note of all removed items
- Take note of any important papers that were damaged in the fire
- If insurance won't cover your losses, contact a lawyer or the IRS
- If your home is uninhabitable, contact the local police and ask them to keep an eye on the property until you decide whether you'll demolish, sell, or restore
- Contact necessary organizations to replace important documents
Restoration After a House Fire
If you decide to restore your property after a fire, hiring a restoration professional is advisable as they will have access to knowledge and equipment that you do not possess. However, if you do decide to do it on your own, here are some suggestions to get you started.
- First and foremost, allow everything to dry completely. Open windows, utilize fans, and move what you can into the sunshine or to hang on a clothesline. Be extremely cautious if you have to move upholstered furniture or other fabrics outside to dry; soot is oily and will smear and stain.
- Once everything is thoroughly dry, you can begin cleaning. Close off the area you are working in with a tarp or plastic sheeting in order to prevent soot from traveling. If possible, keep your windows shut at this point to prevent excessive airflow. Cover clean items to prevent re-soiling.
- Thoroughly vacuum all possible surfaces, including curtains and upholstery.
- Continue replacing all air filters until they show no soot.
- Walls: To clean painted walls, wear rubber gloves and goggles and mix 4-6 tbsp. trisodium phosphate (available in hardware stores) with 1 gallon of water. Clean walls one are at a time, leaving the ceiling for last. Rinse all areas well and when thoroughly dried seal with a smoke sealant (available at paint stores) before repainting. Usually wallpaper can't be restored, but check with the manufacturer.
- Wood: Flax soap can be found at hardware stores and is a great product to use on wood products like furniture, cabinetry and flooring (flax soap can also be used on linoleum). Don't use harsh chemical cleaners on wood, and don't dry your wood furniture in the sun as it will warp. After several applications, strip and re-wax.
- Carpeting: Steam cleaning is the only method to get soot out of your carpets, but it must be dry before attempting. It may take several cleanings for your carpet to be fully restored.
- Doors: Door locks and hinges will need to be cleaned and oiled after a fire. The best method is to disassemble the lock and wipe all components with kerosene before oiling and reassembly. If you can't remove the lock, you can inject machine oil through the keyhole and work the knob or lock to spread the oil.
- Cookware: Wash all cookware with dish soap and water then polish with a fine-powdered cleaner.
- Clothes: Take dry clean only items to the cleaner as soon as possible. As for the rest of your clothing, soot and odor might or might not come out. For bleachable items try combining a gallon of warm water with 4-6 tsp trisodium phosphate and a cup of bleach. Mix well before adding to the washer.
- To Replace: It is recommended that you replace your mattress and pillows after a house fire. These items are very difficult to clean entirely and could pose danger to individuals regularly sleeping on them soiled.
Fire survival isn't easy, but it doesn't have to be the end of the world as you know it. When you've finally finished the task of getting resettled, consider throwing a party to bring the cheer back into your environment; no damage is truly permanent.