18 Tips for Everything You Need to Know
About Fire Damage and Restoration
Fire damage can happen to anyone at any time.
Just last week, on August 2, 2018 a large monsoon storm rolled through the Phoenix valley bringing wind, dust, rain, and lots of lightning.
One of those lightning strikes hit a friend’s tall queen palm tree and lit it up like a torch. In the blink of an eye, the tree was a 30-foot blazing totem throwing sparks into the air.
And then, just as fast, those sparks landed on the roof, catching it on fire as well. Soon the flames had spread to the entire house.
One moment this family was gathered in the kitchen watching the storm; the next their house was on fire and they were standing on the street as it burned to the ground.
The loss felt as surprising and sudden as the lightning strike itself. Flash! And then there was nothing.
So what now?
After a fire, big or small, where do you start? How do you restore what’s been lost? What do you need to know to rebuild your property and your life and start fresh? In this article, we will give you 18 important steps to take after a fire to restore the damage.
1. Grieve and Breathe
There are few things more devastating than a house fire.
When it seems like your whole world just went up in smoke, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, grief-stricken, and anxious.
First, take a deep breath. You have experienced a great loss and it can be shock, both mentally and emotionally.
As tragic as it feels, try to remember that everything is going to be okay. The combination of the loss and the uncertainty of what lies ahead, can be extremely stressful. Do your best to calm your fears by recognizing that while today might feel truly terrible, things will get better, they will improve, and eventually return to normal.
In the case of large fires, this stress may also be accompanied by a deep sense of grief over the widespread damage and loss.
That is perfectly normal. The property and irreplaceable possessions that you have loved and cared for have sustained substantial damage. Let yourself grieve and process the loss.
Understand that all of this may take time. It will take time and it will take work, but, again, everything is going to be okay.
Just breathe and grieve. Try not to let your mind run away with anxiety and fear. You have a long process ahead of you and you don’t have to do it all at once. Focus on one step at a time.
2. Remember You Are Not Alone
For most people, thankfully, house fires are unchartered territory.
This experience is all new and can be stressful or very frightening.
While it may be all new to you, you are not alone. You are surrounded by people who have lots of experience, expertise, and understanding.
The firefighters, police, and other first responders who work on your fire are there to help and guide you. They can tell you the next steps to take and ensure your safety throughout the experience.
The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army have experience with large-scale losses and can be great resources for housing and other assistance.
Your insurance company, agent, and adjustors all have experience and knowledge and can answer questions and guide you through the process of restarting and rebuilding.
Additionally, your restoration company has years of experience and training to be able to know exactly what steps to take to effectively clean and eliminate both the obvious and invisible threats that can occur because of fire damage.
They will help you every step of the way, until things are restored to normal.
If you don’t know the answer or the next step, you have someone around you that does. Ask for help and remember you are not alone in this process.
3. Find a Safe Place to Stay
After a fire, you will need a place to sleep for at least a few days.
Even small fires must be inspected and thoroughly cleaned of smoke, ash, and soot before it is safe to reenter and occupy the home.
In some cases, a more long-term housing situation will need to be obtained because, when a fire is large, the cleaning, restoration, and rebuilding process can take many months.
For now, find a place to stay for a few days as the damage is assessed and safety concerns are minimized.
You have a big job ahead of you that will be physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing. Get plenty of rest and take care of yourself and your family.
Staying with family or friends can make recovery easier and can be very comforting.
If you don’t have that option, contact your local disaster relief service, like the Red Cross or Salvation Army.
4. Don’t Forget to Eat
In addition to providing temporary housing, disaster relief organizations can also help you get food, clothing and medicine.
Remember that everything in your house has sustained some damage, even in the event of a small fire, because smoke quickly infiltrates everything.
The air in your home is now full of chemicals and particulates that have contaminated the things inside your home. It is unsafe to eat, drink, or breathe in anything that has been near the flames, smoke, soot, or water used to douse the fire.
Everything will need to be thoroughly cleaned or replaced before they can be used. All food and medicine will need to be thrown out.
You may not feel like eating. Again, remember you have had a traumatic experience and it’s important to take care of yourself.
When we lived in our first home, our neighbors at the end of the cul-de-sac had a grease fire in their kitchen. I remember standing out on the street for hours with our friends as the firefighters worked, putting out the fire and checking for flareups and hot spots.
After a few hours, one of the firefighters brought us a few big bags filled with Whoppers. I didn’t even know I was hungry until they handed us one and told us all to sit on the curb and eat.
Suddenly, I was ravenous from all the worry and grief and anxiety. And nothing had ever tasted as good as that Whopper. In that moment, it felt almost life sustaining. I was so grateful for firefighters that had the understanding and experience to have us sit down and eat something when that was the last thing on our minds.
5. Help Your Pets
If you have pets, find and comfort them and take them with you. Keep in mind that scared animals often react by hiding, biting, or scratching.
Handle them carefully and gently and speak to them calmly. Like you, they have been through a stressful, traumatic experience. They may act uncharacteristically for a little while.
Leave your pets with a friend or family member when you need to return to your property for cleaning or other work. Keeping your pets out of the house until the cleanup is complete is much safer for them because of the debris and chemicals.
6. Safety First
It is important that you fully understand the risk to your health and safety even after the fire has been put out.
As we noted previously, the air, soot, and dirty water left behind contain dangerous chemicals that can make you sick.
There can be significant, hidden structural damage as well. Roofs or floors may be damaged and could fall down or have weak spots.
Do not reenter your damaged home or property unless the fire department has given you permission to do so. Fires can start again, even if they appear to be out.
The fire department will also ensure that all utility services (water, electricity and gas) are safe to use. If they are not safe, the firefighters will have your utilities turned off or disconnected before they leave. Do not ever try to turn them back on by yourself.
Use caution when you are allowed to reenter the property, especially when touching and handling fire-damaged items. Follow the advice of the experts in fire cleanup—the firefighters, local building officials, your insurance agent, and your restoration team—before you begin any cleanup or start repairs.
7. Understand the True Dangers
When you think of a fire, the most dangerous part appears to be the flames or the smoke.
But you should understand that some of the most dangerous parts of the fire are found in the ashes and the aftermath—long after the flames are extinguished and the smoke has cleared.
When materials burn they create toxic volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), which are extremely hazardous to your health and even lethal if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed into the skin. These effects can occur immediately or can take days, weeks, or months to take an effect.
In one case, a California fire chief was making a fire inspection after a residential fire, but became very sick as he was returning to the fire station. A HAZMAT team was called and found containers of liquid sodium cyanide on the scene.
The fire chief was immediately put in a hyperbaric chamber and was able to make a full recovery, but it was later determined that he had inhaled a near-lethal dose of sodium cyanide from the off-gassing of a jewelry refinishing business that was operated out of the home and had burned up in the fire.
Even when the fire department allows you to reenter your property, VOCs, particulates, and other chemical compounds are still present and represent a real threat to your health and safety.
Many of these toxic particles are so small they easily pass through the lungs into the bloodstream and then make their way to vital organs.
They are also small enough to enter through the nose and directly to the brain through the olfactory nerve, bypassing the protective blood-brain barrier.
Always wear protective clothing, masks, and gloves when visiting your property or handling any combustible material.
8. Secure the Property
Your home owner’s policy will cover the items and property damaged by the fire.
However, after the fire, most policies require you to make certain the house or property is secure against possible intruders or additional damage.
Contact your local police department and inform them that you will be away from your home. Where possible, board up openings with plywood to prevent unauthorized entrance. Cover the roof or other open areas with tarps to prevent rain from getting in.
Your insurance agent can tell you what you need to do to secure the property and your restoration company will have the equipment and knowledge to prevent additional damage from the elements.
Be aware that when you board up your home, the VOC’s, particulates, and toxic compounds will not be able to dissipate.
The combination of the lack of ventilation after a board-up and the poisonousness of the burned materials classifies this environment as “immediately dangerous to life and health” (IDLH) by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Extreme caution and preventative measures need to be taken by anyone enter the house after it is boarded up.
9. Call Your Insurance Agent
After the fire department and the police, the next call should be to your insurance agent.
Start by asking about the immediate needs of your home, including pumping out water, covering doors and windows, and securing the property.
Some of this damage is a result of the firefighters doing their job. Breaking windows or cutting holes in the roof or walls allows for ventilation which slows a fire’s growth. It also allows the very dark smoke to escape, making it easier for firefighters to see and do their work.
Both water and ventilation will cause damage to your property, but ultimately, they help put the fire out more quickly and save lives and property.
Your insurance agent will lead you through the process of filing a claim, first by addressing the more urgent water damage and security concerns, and then eventually creating an itemized list of everything irreparably lost in the fire.
Remembering, cataloguing, and itemizing all your possessions may seem overwhelming. Again, this will happen one step at a time.
Start the claim as soon as possible, so that further damage can be minimized as much as possible, and then your agent can lead you step by step through the rest of the process..
10. Call a Restoration Company
After your insurance agent has authorized you to begin cleanup, call a restoration company with a superior reputation and years of experience in fire damage.
They need to be licensed, bonded, and insured, with a proven track record.
The restoration company will send an emergency response team to assess the damage to your home, secure the property from future weather damage or intrusion, begin pumping out water and drying where necessary, as well as estimating the total extent of the damage.
They will also probably begin ventilation, to air out the house as much as possible, using industrial-strength fans and air scrubbers to help reduce the amount of smoke damage your home and possessions are exposed to.
These first, immediate steps will go a long way to preventing and minimizing further damage. What happens after that will depend on the extent of the fire damage, but it will likely be a combination of cleaning and salvaging where possible, demolition and disposal where necessary, and rebuilding and restoring the home’s function and beauty.
Using specialized equipment, filters, alkaline cleaning solvents, and trained expertise, restoration companies who have experience in fire damage are able to safely remove all the traces and corrosive elements of smoke and soot damage without causing harm to their technicians.
Again, do not try to do this yourself without proper training, protective clothing, masks, or specialized equipment.
11. Be Aware of Prolonged and Hidden Smoke Damage
Fire damage is especially insidious to remove because some signs of damage are obviously apparent—such as piles of ash, discoloration on walls and ceilings, and dark stains from smoke on household surfaces—but others are not as visible.
Damage that is more hidden includes smoke odor that has seeped into porous surfaces like wood and even cement.
Soot can hide in tiny cracks in walls and under baseboards, and even very small amounts can corrode microprocessors and delicate circuit parts in appliances, computers, and other electronics.
Air conditioning vents, the empty space behind walls, and even the outside walls of your home are all areas where smoke, ash, and soot can cling and quietly continue to cause damage through chemical corrosion if they aren’t removed and sanitized in a timely manner.
It’s important to ensure that the HVAC system, vents, the attic and roof, and all the exterior walls are inspected and professionally and properly cleaned.
Until the soot is completely removed by fire damage restoration specialists, your home will not only smell bad, it will be unsafe for habitation, and the caustic chemicals will continue to inflict corrosive damage to your home.
12. Call Your Mortgage Lender or Landlord
As soon as you are safe, your property is secure, and you claim has been started, it’s wise to contact your mortgage company and let them know about the fire.
It’s also a good time to contact your bank and credit card company to report any cards that were lost in the fire and request replacements.
13. Keep Good Notes
The process of restoring your home and replacing your possessions after fire damage is long and involves lots of details.
It is wise to keep a notebook or binder with all your necessary information in one place.
Keeping a record of your conversations with your insurance company and restoration contractor can help you resolve misunderstandings and reduce confusion. Also, keep a list of everything removed from the home for disposal or cleaning. This will help you make sure your claim is accurate.
Save all your receipts for any money you spend, as they may be needed later as part of your claim with the insurance company. You will also need your receipts to prove any losses you claim on your tax return.
14. Create a Loss List
Depending on your insurance policy requirements, it is likely that you will need to create an itemized list of the unsalvageable and destroyed household and personal items that were lost in the fire.
While this can feel extremely overwhelming, it is important to start. Every time you think of or remember something, record it. The insurance company will probably need you to provide an estimate of the value of the item and the amount you paid for it. If you are able to recover any receipts for items this can also be helpful. Your insurance agent can tell you exactly what the company needs to fulfill the claim.
Then go through your house, room by room, in your mind. Think about what was in that corner, what did you keep in that desk or in that particular dresser. Try to picture the room itself. What was on the walls? What furniture was kept in that room?
Break it down into individual rooms and then break it down even farther. Step by step, you will gradually start to generate a significant list.
This process can be hard, not only because of the magnitude of the job, but because it can make the feelings of loss even greater. Go slowly and let yourself grieve as you need to, especially for unique and irreplaceable items. Take breaks when necessary. Recognize that this is an emotional process even more that a physical one sometimes.
15. Replace Important Documents
As you clean up, try to find your family’s important documents and records.
If you had a significant fire, it’s possible that many of these have been damaged or destroyed.
If any of the following documents were destroyed you will need to obtain new copies:
- Driver’s license, auto registration
- Bankbooks (checking, savings, etc.)
- Birth, death and marriage certificates
- Social Security or Medicare cards
- Mortgage papers
- Insurance policies
- Passports and citizenship documents
- Divorce papers
- Titles to deeds
- Stocks and bonds
- Medical records
- Income tax records
- Animal registration papers
- Military discharge papers
16. Talk to Your Accountant
This may be the only good news you’ve heard since the fire alarm went off, but there are special tax considerations for people who have had fire damage and loss.
As previously mentioned, keep any receipts related to the fire and keep and accurate account of your expenses and losses.
Then talk to an accountant or contact the IRS about how to take advantage of the tax laws and benefits available after a fire.
17. Trust the Experts
Experiencing fire damage is a unique and difficult experience.
Your instinct will be to try to fix things immediately so that you can feel better and so that things can feel normal again.
But because of the dangerous nature of both the fire itself and the chemical cleanup involved, the “fix” will not be quick and you will be unable to do much of it yourself. You will need to trust the experts and their years of knowledge and experience. In most circumstances you will need to wait for professionals with the right equipment, clothing and disposal techniques to do their job.
Much of the frustration and anxiety that people experience after fire damage can be mitigated through managing expectations and thoughts. Don’t think and expect things to go a certain way, the way you think it “should,” or the way it did for your neighbor or brother-in-law.
Every fire is different. Every fire burns different materials, at different temperatures, at different rates, and was extinguished in different ways. All of these factors make a difference in the cleanup and restoration.
Your fire is unique. Trust your restoration team to return your property to its safest, cleanest, most beautiful condition, and try to be patient in the meantime. When you choose a reputable, expert restoration team, you can rely on them to do what’s best for you and your home throughout the process.
At Titan Restoration we are committed to producing exceptional work at the highest safety and industry standards. We will do our best to make the fire damage restoration process as easy, efficient, and straightforward as possible.
18. Create a New Normal
You have gone through an experience that is anything but “normal.” You are most likely living in a temporary housing situation without your usual clothes or furniture or other comforts of home.
Your life has been turned upside down. Remind yourself that while this isn’t “normal” it can still be “okay.”
As a restoration company, we can tell you from experience that as fast as we work, it is still not fast enough for things to be immediately back to the “way they were.” Accept that the entire process will take time. It will take more time than you want, because even one day living in limbo feels too long.
Instead of waiting for things to be exactly as they were before you can feel okay, try to think about this time as a “new normal.” It is different for sure. But that doesn’t mean you have to put your life, your happiness, or your personal peace on hold.
Remember that eventually everything will be made right. But you don’t need to wait to return to your home to feel “normal,” but instead try to embrace this “new normal” and look for little ways to find joy even in these very unusual circumstances.
Also, be aware that in some ways, your life may never be exactly the same as it was before the fire. Something significant has occurred in your life.
I have a friend whose family had a house fire when he was a teenager. It was caused when some lint in the dryer vent caught fire. The experience left such an impression on him that when he grew up and had his own home and family, he vacuumed out his dryer vent every Saturday. It was like mowing the lawn to him…just something that had to be done every week.
What my friend learned through his experience as a teenager affected the way he lived his life. What you learn as you go through your own fire damage experience will undoubtedly affect you and change you and all of this will be part of your “new normal.” Allow yourself to adjust and learn as you enter this unchartered territory.
At Titan Restoration, we are here to guide you and assist you through every step of the fire damage restoration process, from those initial devasting moments to the final completed restoration. You are not alone. With us, you have a partner with years of fire damage experience and understanding. We’re always here to help.
Have you experienced fire damage?
What helped you the most as you were going through it?
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