Regardless of the degree of damage, contacting your insurance agent should be one of the first things you do. The insurance agency will likely assign an adjuster to your claim, and he or she will meet with you as soon as possible at your home. Fire department personnel will discuss whether or not the home is still structurally sound enough for anyone to enter.
Structural integrity isn’t the only danger of which to be aware. There are invisible health hazards to avoid, including smoke and soot. These are the result of incomplete combustion that causes both particulate and odor contamination (PICs), throughout the home, even in areas where flames didn’t reach.
Smoke and soot must be taken seriously. Those entering the home after the fire should wear proper protective gear, such as an N95 or N100 respirator and gloves. Homeowners often think, “It’s just soot and the smoke is gone. No problem.” However, fire generates PICs that remain in the air and on surfaces. They are very small and can range from 0.1-4.0 microns in size, so occupants easily inhale them. Many PICs are known carcinogens and can be harmful if inhaled.
Below are five more things you should never, ever do after a fire.
1. Do not enter your home to assess the damage or look through contents until it has been cleared to do so by the fire department or the proper authorities.
There are many safety hazards such as compromised structural components, falling debris, electrical safety issues or slippery surfaces. Make sure the structure is sound before entering to assess damages and go through contents.
2. Do not eat any foods that may have been contaminated by soot or smoke damage.
If there is any doubt, discard the item. And do not keep plastic food containers affected by the fire. This includes canned goods since chemicals used to put out a fire or exposure to heat may have compromised the food inside of the can. Foods inside of the refrigerator or freezer needs to be thrown out as well. The home probably has been without power for a length of time after the fire was put out. The rule of thumb is better safe than sorry when it comes to throwing away food after a home fire.
3. Don’t forget to itemize and take pictures of contents, furniture and clothing for your insurance adjustor.
Do not discard any damaged goods before listing and photographing them. If possible, and sometimes it is not, retrieve copies of receipts, credit card statements or other proof that proves the cost of higher value items. Never move items from their position that may have been the source of the fire. Insurance adjustors, fire inspectors and other authorized personnel must be able to examine these items just as they were prior to the fire.
4. Do not attempt to clean contents, furniture, walls or anything damaged in the fire.
This includes trying to wash clothing or other textiles. This can make the damage worse or create irreversible damage to items to the point that you may never be able to use them again. Contents, furniture, clothing, etc. need to be cleaned by a professional who has experience in fire, smoke and soot damage, even though it may seem like a matter of wiping something down with a cloth or rinsing it under the sink.
5. Do not leave your home’s windows and doors open, no matter the extent of fire damage.
Not properly and safely boarding up your home’s windows and doors can attract looters, who can add insult to injury. This puts your property and belongings at even more risk of damage or theft. Also, tarping the roof can prevent additional damage from rain or snow.
After a house fire, what you don’t do is just as important as what you do in terms of saving your belongings and preventing further loss. Between your insurance adjustor and your restoration company, you know what to do and what not to do, along with other professionals that might be needed depending on the type of damage, you can rest assured it will be a smooth process back to “normal.”
If you’ve experienced a fire in your home and have questions about what you should or shouldn’t do, talk to one of our residential fire restoration specialists. After all, a fire is one of those events that you don’t know how to handle if you’ve never been through one.