How to Repair Damage After a House Fire
The job of restoring your home can be physically demanding, dirty, and emotionally exhausting—but it’s doable and well worth the reward of getting your house back.
It might start as a spark from an arcing electrical wire, or from some robust sautéing that got out of hand, or more commonly these days, from a wildfire. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are more than 350,000 house fires in this country every year. Some inflict relatively minor damage to the house, while others consume the house entirely. And while any fire is a traumatic event, many homeowners are left with enough house that they can rebuild the damaged parts and return to life as usual.
Call Your Insurance Company
If your house has sustained a fire, your first call should be to your insurance company. Do not enter the house until the fire marshal or fire department gives the all-clear and says that it’s safe to enter.
Consider Hiring a Structural Engineer and Specialized Companies
Depending on the amount of damage, you may need to hire a structural engineer to assess the condition of the floors, walls, and roof. These specialists evaluate the condition of the house’s foundation, framing, and building envelope and recommend repair or replacement of any damaged portions. If the house is uninhabitable, be sure to secure it by covering any holes or damaged windows or doors with plywood. To prevent further water damage, tarp off any open sections of the roof, provided that the fire department or structural engineer says it’s safe to do so.
There are companies that specialize in cleaning up the soot, smoke, and water damage after a fire, so if you don’t have the skills or the inclination, call one of them. Restoration companies typically use thermal fogging machines and ozone generators, as well as other equipment, to clean a home’s interior. Many cleaning companies don’t do repairs, however, so you may also need to call a builder, electrician, plumber, or roofer.
Wear Appropriate Gear When Cleaning
Structure fires generate toxic chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic. If you perform any of the cleaning yourself, be sure to wear a dust mask, protective clothing, and rubber gloves.
Get Rid of the Water First
Start by removing anything that’s wet: drywall, insulation, rugs, and furniture. Water damage is a real threat and anything that remains wet will breed mold and mildew. If there’s standing water in the basement, you can rent a sump pump to extract it. You can also rent fans and dehumidifiers to circulate air and promote drying; and while you’re at it, replace all the air filters in your HVAC system.
How to Get Rid of the Smoke Odor
In the immediate aftermath of a fire, firefighters often set up big fans to clear smoke and its associated odor from the structure. But the smell of the fire will linger long after the smoke is gone, so undamaged surfaces such as ceilings, walls, and floors will have to be cleaned. All charred fixtures, furniture, cabinets, and the like should be removed. Soot is corrosive and should be removed as quickly as possible.
Use a shop vac, or similar, that’s equipped with a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filter to extract debris from the floor and fabrics, such as upholstery, curtains, and bed linens. Rugs that are salvageable should be cleaned by a professional carpet service.
To clean soot-covered surfaces, experts recommend mixing a solution of a couple of tablespoons of dishwashing detergent, a cup of borax, and two cups of vinegar in a gallon of water. Focus on one area at a time, use a sponge to scrub surfaces, and rinse with plain water afterward. Clothing can be cleaned by soaking in warm water, detergent, and white vinegar. You can also take it, along with draperies, blankets, etc., to a dry cleaner that’s experienced in eradicating smoke odors.
Evaluating the Remains
When all the irreparably damaged items have been removed and the home’s interior has been cleaned, it’s time to consult the structural engineer’s report. It’s up to the structural engineer to assess the condition and viability of the house’s structural components.
If your house cannot be restored with relative ease, it might be time to remodel or redesign it. If it can be salvaged and you opt to rebuild, discuss the proposed construction with the structural engineer. In most places, you’ll also need to get demolition and/or building permits before you start, and current building codes may force unforeseen but beneficial changes to the house, such as a seismic retrofit or energy-efficient upgrades. Depending on the extent of the fire damage, you may be calling an electrician and a plumber as well.
As you’re working, remember that demolition can be dangerous. Before setting ladders, be sure that walls and floors are adequately braced. As with new construction, build from the ground up, establishing the first level before starting the second. And recognize that the emotional toll of this experience can be debilitating; accidents are more likely to occur when you are tired, so take extra care to be rested and alert when you rebuild your house.