11 Steps to Take when Fire and Smoke Damage your Property
In Canada, most wildfires happen between April to October, with peak activity between mid-May and August. The most common causes of fires are cooking accidents, smoking (a leading cause of both home and wild fires), heating equipment, electrical appliances, candles, children playing with fire, faulty wiring and flammable liquids. Commercial and residential property is also at risk when a nearby building catches fire and during wildfire season.
Unfortunately, when a fire occurs, it often results in both primary and secondary damage to property. Secondary damage can be extensive, including:
- Smoke – Smoke can spread quickly to other areas of a building, leaving behind a strong odour. It can only be removed by removing or treating the sources.
- Residue from smoke and soot – This residue is a corrosive substance that discolours walls, surfaces, appliances and fabrics. If left untreated, it will imbed in materials, leading to further damage to the property. Inhalation could also cause or increase respiratory illness.
- Water damage – Firefighting efforts often cause water damage, creating risk of mould. Water also evaporates from all materials super-heated by fires, and mixes with the smoke, which then helps the smoke penetrate into porous materials.
- Urban ash vs “Natural” ash – Soot and ash from within a city setting will contain plastics, chemicals, etc that will generally not be present from wood burning alone, and are as a result, more hazardous. These have been proven carcinogenic. You must wear a respirator when in an urban fire of significant severity.
Office Desk Soot
11 Important Steps to Take after a Fire Damages Your Home or Business
Here are 11 steps to take once you are able to return to your property, whether you’re a commercial property owner, property manager or homeowner. Only return when officials have authorized you to do so.
- Use extreme caution both outdoors and inside. Various risks may still be present, such as ash pits and downed trees, poles and power lines. Call 911 if you perceive any danger and do not enter the property.
- Check the grounds for heat pockets, live embers, and smoldering trees or vegetation. If your water supply is operational, douse these areas with buckets of water to prevent them flaring up again.
- Wear a respirator. Polycarbon particles from fires in urban environments are cancer causing. Whenever possible, protection against breathing them in should be worn.
- Beware of damaged areas of floors and the roofs. These can collapse without warning and are often covered in debris such as fallen interior finishes and insulation, limiting your ability to judge the structure’s stability. If you’re going to enter the property, wear the proper PPE (steel-toed boots, eye protection, respirator, protective suit, and hard hat), watch for dangling burnt overhead hazards, and enter slowly listening for sounds of creaking or shifting. If in doubt, consult the contractor.
- Check every area for sparks, smoke or embers. This includes roof, attic and crawlspace. Sparks and embers may enter through openings in the roof and continue burning unseen.
- Do not turn on any utilities that have been have disconnected or shut down. Doing so could spark another fire if wiring or equipment have been damaged, could further flood the property, or could produce a gas leak. Contact your utility company for next steps.
- Dispose of any food or beverages that were exposed to flames, smoke, soot or any water that was used to put out the fire. This also applies to medicines, cosmetics and toiletries.
- Take pictures before you begin to clean up. You will need to submit these with your insurance claim. It is especially important to record damage before you attempt any repairs or removal of damaged items, water and debris yourself.
- Contact your insurance company. You should do this as soon as possible after a fire. If the fire affected other properties in your area, speed is even more important to prioritize your claim. Follow any instructions on what you should and should not do to maximize the amount of support from your claim.
- Hire a professional with specialized expertise in smoke cleaning to complete a proper assessment. Smoke contamination can travel to areas of property and/or belongings that may not be visible to the untrained eye.
- Collect items of value, monetary or sentimental. On your first visit to the site, once safety precautions have been taken, collect items like jewelry, cash, heirlooms, passports, government ID, and any building plans or Real Property Reports you have filed. Notify the restoration company of items that, regardless of damages, you would want to prioritize.
In the aftermath of any emergency, clean-up and restoration should begin as soon as the property is safe to access. The faster you can act and have a professional assess the degree and types of damage, the sooner you can get back to normal.