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Returning to Your Home after a Wildfire

Wildfire: Protecting Yourself and Your Family

​​​​​​​​​Your home may be affected by smoke, soot and ash, chemicals, structural damage, and water damage. This information is a collection of health and safety items to think about as you start to repair your home. It covers many general topics. Not all of the information may apply to your situation.

Re-enter areas burned by wildfire safely

Do not go back into any areas that were heavily damaged or destroyed by the wildfire until the local authorities allow you to return.

Once you are able to enter burned out areas safely, be very careful. Take basic precautions and be aware of hazards to your health and safety.

If you or your family becomes injured by fire debris, get help. You may need medical attention. Even if a dirty wound or puncture injury does not look severe, it could put you at risk for an infection or for tetanus if your immunization is not up to date. If you need medical help:

  • call 911 (if severe)
  • call Health Link at 811
  • consult your family doctor
  • visit the local emergency department

What hazards should I watch for?

  • Slip, trip, and fall hazards from unstable structures, open pits, or wet and slippery surfaces.
  • Sharp objects such as nails, metal, concrete, or wood debris.
  • Ash, soot, and demolition dust.
  • Damaged or leaking household hazardous materials such as kitchen and bathroom cleaning products, paint, batteries, and fuel containers.
  • Small or poorly ventilated areas where carbon monoxide may be present from the operation of pumps, generators, or pressure washers. Do not enter tight spaces.
  • Damaged or leaking pesticides or herbicide containers like ant or weed killer.
  • Propane cylinders for heating or from BBQ.

What personal protective equipment (PPE) should I use to enter burned out areas?

Use PPE when entering your home. In particular, people with asthma or respiratory conditions should only spend short periods of time in these areas and wear respiratory protection.

Breathing protection:

  • Use N95 rated masks to help filter out and lower the amount of particles, such as ash, soot, and other nuisance-type particles, that you breathe in. A mask rated N95, when properly fitted (see section below) will work better than a dust mask or surgical mask in blocking particles from ash.
  • Look for “NIOSH 95” on the package. N95 means the mask blocks about 95 percent of particles that are 0.3 microns in size or larger.
  • You can buy N95 masks at hardware, safety or construction supply stores, home improvement centres, and pharmacies.
  • Masks can sometimes make it feel like it’s harder to breathe. People who think they may have trouble wearing this type of mask should talk with their family doctor.
  • If you can’t find N95 masks, a dust mask that fits well may give you some protection during cleanup. Many ash particles are larger than those found in smoke, and a dust mask can lower the number of particles breathed in. P100 masks will filter out smaller particles for any demolition.

How to Self-Fit N95 Masks (Respirator)

Always read and follow the manufacturer's directions when using a mask.

  • Use both straps on the mask to hold it in place. This will help keep air from leaking around the mask.
  • The mask must cover both the nose and mouth to keep you from breathing in dust and ash.
  • Do a positive and negative pressure seal check to make sure that mask fits and that you’ve adjusted it to fit properly.
    • Negative pressure check - Place both hands completely over the mask and inhale quickly. Be careful not to move the position of the mask. The mask should pull into your face. If air leaks around your face or eyes, adjust the nosepiece and straps and repeat the negative pressure check.
    • Positive pressure check - Put your hands over the mask and breathe out quickly. If your mask has an exhalation valve be sure to cover the exhalation valve when you exhale. No air should leak out of the mask if it fits properly. If air leaks out, adjust the nosepiece and straps again and repeat the positive pressure check.
  • If the mask doesn’t have a snug fit, it won’t work properly. A good fit of the mask needs contact with smooth skin. Masks won’t work properly for people with beards or facial hair.

Protective clothing, gloves, and boots:

  • Choose sturdy clothes and footwear that protect you from “head-to- toe” from cuts, scrapes, punctures, and slips. Make sure that they are right for type of work you’ll be doing and where you’ll be.
  • At minimum, wear long sleeve shirts, long pants or coveralls, leather gloves, and boots with thick soles to stop punctures from sharp objects. Steel-toed boots are recommended.

Eye, face, and head protection:

  • Wear safety glasses or goggles that give wrap-around protection. Regular sunglasses don’t give you enough protection.
  • Protective helmets or hard-hats are recommended for clean-up of areas where there’s a risk of falling debris due to structural damage to the home.

Hearing protection:

  • Ear plugs or safety ear muffs should be used when operating heavy machinery or power tools.

If you’d like more information about the health risks from wildfire smoke, please read Wildfire Smoke and Your Health

Re-enter your yard and home safely

Return to your property only once your local authorities have said it’s safe to do so. You may not have water, natural gas, or electricity services when you return.

When entering your yard:

  • Look to see how stable the trees are around your property. Check for damage on the tree trunk or for visible damage of burned tree roots. Any trees that have been damaged by fire may soon become another danger. They will need to be cut down and taken out.
  • Avoid touching damaged or fallen power lines and power poles. There may be hidden electrical dangers.
  • Watch your pets or other animals closely and keep them under your direct control at all times.
  • Wet down any fire debris you see to lower the risk of breathing in soot and ash particles. These could cause health problems for you and your family. Do not wash the fire debris into the street as this may do damage to the storm sewer system.
  • Places affected by the wildfire will likely smell very smoky for a number of days. There may be soot, ash, and other fire debris all around your home and yard.
  • If you or anyone in your family have breathing problems or asthma, take all proper steps to protect yourself.
    • Call Health Link at 811 or consult your family doctor for any medicine or extra things you may need to do at this time.
    • Smoke and fire ash that stays around your home and yard can temporarily make your breathing issues worse.
  • Further information on Wildfire Smoke and Your Health

DO NOT enter your home if:

  • You notice or suspect any source of heat or smoke. Call 911.
  • There’s any danger of a structural failure or collapse. Check for any visible structural damage to your home that was caused by this fire.

    Things you may notice:
    • Roofs and floors may be damaged and possibly be ready to collapse.
    • The brick or cement in the foundation or the fireplace chimney can be badly damaged by the heat from the wildfire.
    • The concrete foundation of your home may be cracked and leaning or looking like it will collapse. Don’t try to go in and get any items or climb down to try to see what damage there is.

Take all appropriate precautions to protect yourself and family.

When entering your home:

  • Wear the appropriate PPE including masks, gloves, and boots.
  • Return to your property only during daylight hours if possible.
  • Use extreme caution when you enter your home. Be sure to use flashlights and turn them on before you go inside. Don’t try to use any light switches in the house. This may create sparks that could cause a fire or explosion if there’s a gas leak nearby.
  • Be sure to wait until your utility company has checked and says it’s safe before turning on any electricity, gas, or water. They may have had to turn off all utilities for your area. You may be able to get more information from your municipality (town, city).
  • Check all electrical appliances or power in your home or garage to see if it’s been in contact with fire, water, or fire retardant. Don’t use any of these until they’ve been cleared for use by a qualified electrician.
  • Turn off all the valves on your propane tank systems and leave valves closed until the supplier inspects your system.

Be careful when near fire retardants and fire residues

  • Fire retardant helps to slow down the fire. It contains ammonia which can:
    • sting your eyes, cuts, scratches or sunburnt skin
    • irritate your skin
    • cause coughing or wheezing
    • cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea if it’s swallowed
  • Soot and ash can cause symptoms including:
    • eye and skin irritation
    • breathing problems

These symptoms may be worse depending on the type of soot or ash, how long you’re exposed, and if you already have a respiratory condition.

  • Smoke can irritate the skin, nose, throat, lungs, and eyes. It can also cause coughing and wheezing. For more information on health effects from wildfire smoke, please see Wildfire Smoke and Your Health
  • Flush irritated eyes and skin thoroughly with water. You can use a gentle soap solution if you had skin contact with fire retardant, soot, ash or smoke.
  • If you have respiratory symptoms such as coughing and wheezing, move away from the area. Take your prescription inhalers as directed. If you’re having trouble breathing, get medical help right away.

Fire retardants and your pets

  • Thoroughly shampoo your pets if they’ve had contact with smoke, soot, ash, or fire retardants.
  • Clean up any puddles that come from shampooing with soil or sand.
  • Make sure animals don’t drink water from puddles that have fire retardants or fire residue.
  • If your pet looks sick from eating or drinking fire retardants or fire residue, take them to a veterinarian.

Review your insurance information or other options

If you are insured:

  • Contact your insurance company or broker as soon as possible.
  • Take lots of pictures.
  • Your local municipality may give you more information about making insurance claims.

Other options:

Help may be available through your local, private service organizations such as:

  • Canadian Red Cross
  • Salvation Army
  • Local religious organizations
  • Provincial or municipal emergency social services
  • Non-profit crisis centres
  • Local emergency social services, if available

Visit the local reception or information centres to find out more.

Restoration Contractors

  • Work with and through your insurance company as much as you can. They’ll have contractors who they approve and work with.
  • If anyone in your family is sensitive to chemicals or mould, your restoration contractor needs to know so that they can take all necessary precautions.
  • Contractors must meet applicable safety codes standards.
  • For information about choosing a private contractor or if you have questions about your contract, contact the Service Alberta Consumer Contact Centre at They can give you more information about these types of consumer issues.

Current as of: June 26, 2018

Author: Environmental Public Health, Alberta Health Services