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WHERE DO I START THE CLEANUP AT HOME AFTER A WILDFIRE?

TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS | CLEANING DAMAGE FROM SMOKE, BLOWING EMBERS, HEAT & MORE

Even a house untouched by the fire is likely to have suffered at least some residual damage from smoke, blowing embers and heat if the blaze got close enough as it burned past. 

Here is some advice from fire officials, cleaning companies, insurance agents, government officials and homeowners who are dealing with the aftermath of the wildfires.

  • The quality of the air inside your house may have been compromised by smoke. You might smell it, or you might not. Because the wildfires burned for so long, people have become used to the smell. Advice: Keep small children and anyone who has asthma, allergies or other breathing problems out of the house until it’s clean.
  • Cleaning the air involves a lot more than opening the windows and turning on the fans to air the place out. The best way to remove an odor is to remove its source. That source could be anything that can absorb smells, like carpet, upholstered furniture, comforters, pillows, mattresses and even clothes, which can be professionally cleaned to remove odor and soot.
  • If a qualified air quality specialist or air conditioning professional recommends cleaning your air ducts to prevent soot from blowing into the house, insist on an inspection of the air handling cabinet of your central heating system, air conditioning or evaporative cooler. Cleaning only the ducts will not solve your problem. Don’t turn on your air conditioner until you’ve had the ducts and air handling cabinet inspected.
  • Air cleaning companies use an ozone generator to oxidize the source of the odor to permanently remove it. This is a worthwhile investment, but it’s not a job for a do-it-yourselfer. The ozone oxidizes organic material, so it’s not safe to use around people, pets or plants. Clear everyone out of the house and let the pros tell you when it’s okay to come back in.
  • Both the Arizona Registrar of Contractors and the Arizona Department of Insurance have issued urgent warnings to homeowners about unlicensed, “traveling” contractors who rush into the state whenever there’s a disaster to take advantage of vulnerable homeowners. When you hire contractors to help with construction, cleaning and debris removal, verify that the company has a valid ROC license (check it at www.azroc.gov) and insurance. Do not pay up front, and refuse to be pressured into making decisions before you’re ready. 
  • Plenty of legitimate, Arizona-based fire “remediation” companies are making their way to the affected areas to offer professional cleaning. These companies specialize in post-fire cleanup, and their fees most likely are covered by your homeowner’s insurance policy. Talk to your insurance agent about what’s covered before you hire a cleaning service.   
  • Air quality and fire remediation companies use chemicals to clean your house so they can remove both odors and grime. Dry cleaning sponges, for example, are designed specifically to remove soot. Do-it-yourselfers can buy them at janitorial supply stores.
  • Likewise, a professional carpet cleaner has equipment that is more powerful and uses much hotter water than a portable cleaner that you can rent. A professional job will pull dirt and odors out of your carpet better.
  • You can do some of the cleaning yourself, but it’s a good idea to talk to a remediation company first to get some advice. You might be surprised to learn that regular dry cleaning can “set” a smoky smell in clothes and comforters instead of removing it. 
  • If you decide to do your own laundry – you will need to wash every stitch of clothing in the house – even if it was in a closed closet or dresser drawer, be sure to keep track of your time and the cost of your supplies. Some insurance policies will reimburse a homeowner for do-it-yourself, post-fire cleanup, which could help defray the cost of your deductible for the jobs you need to hire out.
  • Do-it-yourselfers should carefully read manufacturer’s directions before cleaning expensive draperies or upholstered furniture. It might be worth it to leave that to the pros rather than to risk ruining your beloved pieces by using the wrong cleaning supplies.
  • You’ll want to cover your face with a paper mask and wear rubber gloves before touching anything in the house
  • Smoke can penetrate wood furniture, and water can warp it. Include your wood pieces when you talk to your insurance agent and to the remediation company that will clean your house.
  • If your power was out for more than a couple of days, you might not be able to salvage your refrigerator. Once the juices from rotten meat leak into the cracks and crevices of the appliance, it’s unlikely the smell will ever fade. 
  • Put your fire remediation company in touch with your insurance agent. Some insurance companies are encouraging homeowners to hold off on the cleanup until the fires are no longer a threat so you don’t wind up paying two deductibles for two separate cleanings. But cleaning pros say the longer you wait, the less likely the smell and stains will come out. Ask your cleaning company to work with your insurance company to do what’s best for your house and family.
  • The inside of your house isn’t the only part of your property that needs attention. Intense heat can melt the neoprene washers on your metal roof, rubber seals around windows and doors, flexible insulation around electrical wires in your outdoor circuit breaker box; and a/c hoses and condensing lines.

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