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When your home, school, office, or other space is impacted by a fire, the desire to rebuild is strong. The first step of restoration, cleaning up, can improve safety and return the community to a sense of normalcy. However, there are still dangers present during the cleaning process so take the following precautions.
Who Should Help Clean Up
Before you begin, make sure that your clean-up team is physically capable of performing the task at hand. While many may want to pitch in with the efforts, those with prior medical conditions should respect their own safety first. Pregnant women, the elderly, and anyone with respiratory issues or heart problems could be adversely affected by ash. Additionally, children and pets (except for specifically trained service animals) should not be allowed near the site.
What to Wear
Even the healthiest person should not enter the area without the proper gear. Protect your skin, eyes, and lungs from ash by wearing appropriate clothing. Wear pants, long-sleeved shirts, protective gloves (rubber or leather), and hard-soled shoes while working on site to protect yourself from ash and debris. While smoke may no longer be present, it is important to wear an N-95 or P-100 mask because ash can easily be kicked up during the cleaning process. If necessary, wear protective goggles and hard hats.
Wash off any soot or ash that you come in contact with while working. Particles may contain materials that are toxic - including asbestos.
Entering the Site
Do not enter the site until your local fire department gives you permission to do so. If there are structural issues, downed power lines, hazardous wastes, or other elements caused by the fire still present, let professionals handle them before attempting to clean up. Be aware of any current advisories in the area, including fire conditions, water restrictions, etc. When entering the site, always be aware of your surroundings. Avoid activities that will raise soot and ash into the air or cause it to spread. All clean up should be performed as gently as possible.
If you are planning to eat or drink during clean up, make sure to bring food and water from outside the affected area and to keep it in sealed containers.
The Red Cross recommends using a mild soap or detergent to clean surfaces and furniture. The organization also gives its own formula, instructing to, “mix together 4 to 6 tbsp. tri-sodium phosphate and 1 cup household cleaner or chlorine bleach to every gallon of warm water.”
Do not use fans or deodorizers to get rid of odor. Textiles are the exception - deodorize before cleaning or else the smell may remain. Fans will spread soot particles while deodorizers will mask odors without removing the underlying issue. Instead, open windows and doors for ventilation. Change air filters.
If water damage occurred from fire hoses, use dehumidifiers to reduce moisture. Dry out upholstery, clothing, etc. to prevent mildew and mold.
Ceilings and Walls
A dry chemical sponge is recommended for these porous surfaces (including wallpaper). Using the above cleaning solution, start from the floor, wipe the walls, and rinse immediately. Wash the ceiling last. Use a bleach solution (1 cup of bleach to a gallon of water) to help dry surfaces quickly and prevent mildew and mold. (Test beforehand on a small area to make sure it does not adversely affect the surface.)
Floors and Surfaces (Including Outdoors)
Do not use vacuum cleaners unless they have high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. Otherwise, particles will be dumped back into the air. Instead, sweep gently and then use a damp mop. Light water on the surface will prevent particles from spreading but too much water will have the opposite effect. A damp rag or sponge can be used for surfaces as well.
For carpeting, commercial cleaning or renting equipment is usually best. Particles will often rest deep in carpets, making them difficult to fully clean with household products.
For curtains and upholstery, a HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaner or professional cleaner should be used for soot removal. Once cleaned, remember to place under plastic while other areas are being worked on.
Clothing and linens may be washed cold with regular detergent (with a tablespoon of vanilla extract for deodorizing). The Red Cross also recommends “4 to 6 tbsp. Tri-Sodium Phosphate and 1 cup household cleaner or chlorine bleach for a gallon of warm water” to help with smoke and soot removal. For larger items, such as comforters, try soaking overnight. Use bleach when you are able. Bring speciality items to the dry cleaners and take proper precautions cleaning leather.
Throw out food, medication, and other consumables that were affected by the fire or its elements.
Kitchenware, cutlery, toys, and other household objects should be washed in soapy water, rinsed, and, if needed, polished before use. Detergent and bleach (1 tbsp. per quart of water) may also be used if needed.
If the fire only occurred outside, close all windows and doors to nearby buildings during clean up so ash does not blow inside. Remember to remove sooty clothing, including shoes before returning inside.
Do not use leaf-blowers for any reason. They spread soot, ash, and particles. To prevent the spread of particles, wet down debris. Wash down any animals kept on the property. Garden and orchard products should be washed before consumption.
Remove debris, unstable structures and foundations, dangerous vegetation, hazardous materials, and contaminated soil. After clean up, consider erosion control and stormwater management to prevent mudslides. Also, perform soil tests to monitor contamination levels.
Non-hazardous Materials Disposal
Ash and soot can be disposed of in garbage bags wherever you normally process your garbage. If you believe that hazardous materials are present, such as asbestos in ash, contact your local agency. Do not use storm drains for removal.
Hazardous Materials Disposal
Separate hazardous materials from ash and debris. Contact your local agency for information on where to drop-off hazardous materials or how to have them picked up. Hazardous materials include but are not limited to: paint, automotive fluids, compressed gas, aerosol cans, pesticides, fertilizers, pool chemicals, ammunition, electronics and metal appliances (including but not limited to air conditioners, cathode ray tubes, chainsaws, and automobiles), laboratory equipment, and materials containing asbestos, mercury, acid, or lead paint.
Ask for Help
Some clean up will be beyond your capabilities. If there are hazardous wastes or other debris that needs to be removed, contact local agencies for assistance. If you live in an area that has a high volume of wildfires, there will most likely be an agency that is designated to aid in safely cleaning up.
If you find that the task at hand is too difficult to manage on your own but is not large enough for an agency to get involved, contact a cleaning professional. There will be services in your area that know the proper procedures and can send support in your clean up. For instance, if you have water damage from fire hoses, a professional will be needed to replace drywall and insulation.
While the task at hand may seem hopeless, especially after a tragedy, it is important to remember you have a support system you can rely on - whether through your community, government, or professionals. Remember to set breaks for yourself, eat right, and get plenty of sleep during clean up. Set goals and a schedule for the process and be open to adjustments. Also, check in with yourself emotionally and give yourself time to grieve your loss.
If this article is relevant to you, there are challenges ahead. If your school or business needs help grappling with them, talking through them, or starting the process of tackling them, we and our trusted partners can help.
Joffe Emergency Services (joffeemergencyservices.com, 1-888-215-7109) can help coordinate many of the disparate yet critical tasks that need to be accomplished after a fire, from environmental testing to temporary transportation and everything in between. To return your residence, school, or business to its full functionality, we recommend Paul Davis Restoration Services (pauldavis.com, 1-888-473-7669). They have the capability and the experience to manage all of the different clean-up and repair challenges a fire presents.