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Returning to Your Home after a Wildfire

Wildfire: Restore Your Home

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​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.

Throw out items impacted by smoke, heat, ash and chemicals

Food, medicines, cleaners, cosmetics, and other personal care products can be damaged by heat, smoke, and the chemicals used to fight the fire.

There will be items that will need to be properly disposed of after your fire-damaged home has been inspected. Before getting rid of these items, make sure that you put them in your inventory as part of your fire insurance claim.

Please note that you may need to throw out items not listed in this document.

Foods

Your fridge and freezer may also have been without power for some time now and could smell.

Check the food in your home and throw it out if:

  • the temperature was greater than 4ºC at any time for food stored in the refrigerators, coolers and freezers (Please note that the temperature may have gone above 4ºC when the power was off and then returned to 4ºC. Most fridges can keep food at 4ºC for about 4 hours without power.)
    • it has spoiled, even if the fridge remained at 4ºC at all times
    • it’s been opened
    • fire or smoke damaged the food like dry goods (including flour, sugar, spices) even if the package isn’t open
    • unrefrigerated raw vegetables or fruits
    • it was stored in porous containers like cardboard or foam containers
    • the can is bulging, rusted, or dented
    • it was canned or stored in a glass jar (The heat from the fire likely compromised the safety seal.)
  • clean and disinfect all canned foods before opening them to make sure you don’t contaminate the food

Be safe. If in doubt, throw it out.​

Fridges and Freezers

Contact your insurance company to see if you need to replace your fridge or freezer and if you have coverage for this. Follow your local guidelines for what to do with the old fridges and freezers if you need to replace them.

If you are keeping your fridge or freezer, clean, disinfect, and deodorize them once you have thrown out all the spoiled food.

To do this:

  1. Unplug the fridge and freezer.
  2. Rinse or blow out (with an air hose) the coils and compressors on the fridge and freezer.
  3. To clean the inside, use soap and water and then rinse with clean water.
  4. Sanitize the inside with a bleach and water mixture. Mix 1 teaspoon of household bleach for every 4 cups of water.
  5. Leave the doors of the fridge and freezer open and let them dry out.
  6. Once it’s dry, reconnect the power.
  7. Wait until the inside temperature of your fridge has reached 4ºC before refilling it with food.
  8. Wait until your freezer is cold enough to freeze food before refilling it with food.

Medications and Personal Care Products

Contact your insurance company and take lots of photos before throwing anything out.

  • Throw out cosmetics, and personal care products (soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and other) exposed to smoke or high temperatures, even if the package isn’t opened. Return any medicines that need to be thrown out back to the pharmacy. Do not flush any medicines down the toilet or sink.
  • Follow your local guidelines on where medicines and other chemicals may be dropped off for disposal.

Clean up smoke damage and soot

There may be smoke damage and soot in your home after the fire.

If you will be doing the cleaning:

  • Wear the appropriate PPE including masks, gloves and boots.
  • Follow your local guidelines to find out how to dispose of hazardous materials including ash.

Exterior

  • Use a hose, sprayer or pressure washer on the outside of your home, driveway, walkway, vehicle, patio, deck, and outdoor furniture. Rinse off the air intake vents and air conditioner carefully. Be sure NOT to use air hoses or leaf blowers — you don’t want to drive more ash and soot into your house.

Contact your local municipality to make sure there are no water or sewage restrictions before rinsing the exterior of your home.

  • If you’re in a tight or poorly ventilated space be careful when using pumps, pressure washers, or generators. You’re at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning if there isn’t enough air flow. Keep doors and windows open.
  • Attic insulation can keep smoke odours, and you may want to replace it.
  • If you have a private septic system, check the area around your system for damage or sewage leaks. Contact a sewage disposal professional if you find damage to your septic system.

Air Circulation

  • Get the air moving inside your house by using a fan and open your windows. Only do this there’s no smoke or air quality advisory for your area.
    Note: When demolition activities are more likely to produce airborne ash:
    • Stay indoors
    • Close all outer doors and windows
    • Turn off the ventilation for air conditioners and furnaces as much as possible.
  • Replace your furnace filter. You may need to do this more often than usual due to construction and cleaning activities in your home or neighbourhood. Check your filter often.
  • HEPA furnace filters may help take away the “smoky smell” from your home. HEPA stands for high-efficiency particulate air.
  • Humidifiers that are properly looked after can help lower how much ash is floating around.
  • Have your ducts and air conditioning system clean by a professional.
  • Ozone generators don’t act as “air cleaners” and may pose safety hazards.

Interior Surfaces

  • Wash all surfaces inside your home with mild detergent or appropriate cleaning solution and rinse thoroughly. Include the inside of closets, cupboards, and drawers. Clean any place where there’s ash, dust, or the smell of fire.
  • Wash the inside of your windows thoroughly.
  • Wet wiping or mopping is safer and better than dry or dust mopping. Change the water if it gets dirty.
  • Only vacuum with a unit which has a HEPA filter that can catch ash particles. Using unfiltered vacuums will just move the ash around the house. Change your HEPA filter frequently.
  • Ash that isn’t cleaned up is broken into smaller particles and becomes harder to remove from carpets and surfaces.
  • Wash and clean all ash-contaminated household items with mild detergent. Change the water often.

Fabric, carpets, and clothing

  • Soot is oily and can stain carpets, curtains and soft furniture like your couch. The soot must be removed before you try to clean or deodorize those items.
  • Steam clean carpets, drapes, curtains, and furniture. Change the water often.
  • Wash or dry clean all affected clothing and household linens. You may have to run many rinse cycles to get out all the ash, soot and smoke. Consider doing this laundry away from your house. Use a machine tagged for heavy contaminants at a laundromat. These are usually marked as “oilers.”

Electronics

  • It is recommended that you take all electronic equipment outside and “blow out” the components with an air hose before using the device. Ash can cause static charges. Be sure not to blow out components inside your home. Get any electronics checked by a qualified technician before using them again.

Repair water damage

If your home was damaged by water, you will need to get rid of all excess water to limit the potential for mould growth.

  • Wear the appropriate PPE including masks, gloves, and boots.
  • To help stop mould growth, any water-damaged or water-stained surfaces and appliances should be checked for damage. Clean the affected areas using warm water and soap first. Then disinfect the surfaces with a 1:10 parts household bleach and water solution (1 teaspoon bleach in 750 ml of water or 1 capful bleach in 1 gallon of water).
  • Dry all wet items as soon as possible.
  • Dry wet or waterlogged carpets as quickly as possible. Any underlay should be removed. Steam cleaning carpets with a disinfectant should be enough.
  • You may need to use a dehumidifier to help to remove excess moisture from the air inside your home.
  • Let your insurance company and restoration contractor know as soon as possible if you find any visible mould growth or smell mould inside your home.

If you find a small amount of mould (typically under 10 square feet), and you wish to do the work yourself, more information is available here: Steps for Mould Remediation In Private Homes

If you’re a tenant, notify your landlord of any mould concerns and work with them to arrange for proper cleanup.

Clean your yards and outdoor play areas

Your yard and surrounding areas may be impacted by fire ash and soot.

If you decide to manage this yourself:

  • Wear the appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) including masks, gloves, and boots.
  • Wet down any fire debris. Do not wash the fire debris into the street.
  • Scrape up fire ash and soot that’s left on your property as much as possible. Place it in plastic bags or other containers that will keep it from being spread around, and take it to a landfill.
    • If your home or property was totally destroyed by fire then the restoration company will look after this for you when they begin the demolition and recovery process.
  • If you choose to fix or put in new lawns, you can re-sod or reseed grassy areas.
  • Consider adding new, clean soil to gardens if you suspect or know the area was damaged by the fire.
  • For children’s play areas and equipment, clear away any debris and make sure puddles and standing water is removed.
  • If there is fire or structural damage to play equipment, consider blocking access to the area until play equipment is repaired or replaced.
  • Use mild detergent and clean water to wash children’s outside toys, play equipment, and sports equipment.
  • Sand, gravel or other loose materials placed under playground equipment should be removed and replaced especially if you can see ash, soot and small debris.
  • If you suspect or know a sand box was impacted by fire or firefighting materials, the sand should be replaced.

Clean up fire retardant and residue

Some fire retardants can make people and pets sick if swallowed. Fire retardants can cause eye irritation, dry skin, and stinging to cuts and scrapes on your skin. See your family doctor as soon as possible if you have any reaction to these products.

If your home was sprayed with fire retardant or the wind blew some onto your house it should be removed. The siding and roof of your house and your vehicles should be cleaned. Also to be cleaned are any outside toys, furniture, or tools. A fire restoration contractor will be able to help you with this.

If you decide to manage this yourself:

  • Never use bleach when cleaning fire retardant. The reaction between bleach and the fire retardants will produce harmful and explosive gases.
  • Use PPE as appropriate such as masks, rubber gloves, rubber boots, long sleeved shirt, and pants.
  • Wash down your home’s roof and siding, vehicles, and outdoor patio furniture with clean water.
  • To clean windows and glass, use clean water. A razor blade tool can help to remove the sticky residue.
  • Rinse retardant off any plants.
  • Use mild detergent and clean water to wash children’s outside toys, play equipment, and sports equipment.
  • Keep your pets and children away from any puddles from these cleaning activities

Clean up lawns, gardens, trees and plants

  • Soak up any puddles or standing water that has fire retardant materials with soil or sand.
  • Regularly wet down your garden and lawn until the smoke and ash have been diluted or reabsorbed into the air. Ash and soot on plants will continue to smell smoky for some time.
  • Rinse fire retardant off trees, shrubs and plants if possible.
  • Don’t eat fruits and vegetables that were growing in your garden during the fire.
  • Compost from bins that were closed during the fire can be kept and added into the soil as usual.
  • Compost in bins that were open during the fire should be not be used.

For additional information on wildfire recovery please go to the Environmental Public Health website.

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Current as of: June 26, 2018

Author: Environmental Public Health, Alberta Health Services