Before the Cleaning:
The first thing you should do is to be sure the environment is safe to enter and is still structurally sound. If the fire was severe enough for the fire department to extinguish the fire then you shouldn't enter the area until it has been declared safe by a fire marshal or the fire department. Take precaution to not touch soot with your bare skin and have a mask to protect your lungs from breathing in smoke and soot.
Items to Dispose of and What Can Be Saved:
Contained and raw food, containers, perishables, and canned goods and other non-perishables:
Toxic fumes and heat can cause bacteria to activate inside the food within jars and cans. Toxic fumes can permeate containers even aluminum and glass. Raw food such as fruits and vegetables can absorb the toxic fumes and shouldn’t be trusted to be fine. Read “Salvaging Food After a Fire” by the National AG Safety Database for more details.
Food inside the refrigerator in the event of power loss:
If the fire has caused power loss for an extended period, food may have spoiled. When in doubt throw it out.
Cosmetics, Medicine, Vitamins:
If the containers were near the fire and not within a sealed cabinet then toxic fumes may have contaminated the contents.
Clothing and Other Textiles:
Textiles such as curtains and bedding can be saved if you send them to a contents restoration company. They use special methods to remove particles and odors.
Furniture, Documents, Electronics, Art, Leathers, Shoes, and other “Hard Goods” and “Soft Goods”:
A professional contents restoration company can restore these items through special methods to remove particles and odors. If you are using a fire damage restoration company to restore your home, they usually have a contents restoration company that they trust and partner with to restore the contents for their clients.
Damaged Appliances, Cabinets and other Building Materials:
Check with your local municipality on disposal methods. You may be required to arrange special pickup for large appliances or rent a dumpster due to the amount of materials.
When to call for professionals to clean smoke damage:
Cleaning smoke damage is best left to the professionals and shouldn't be attempted by anyone without experience cleaning with industrial strength cleaners. Smoke and soot are acidic and can destroy or discolor most surfaces and smoke particles may have been blown into the extended area of the fire requiring extensive cleaning or restoration. Soot and smoke are dangerous to breathe in so protective mask and gloves are a must. You will be using lots of water and strong chemicals which can cause more damage if not properly used and removed. Cleaning of textiles such as curtains, clothing, and furniture should be left to professional content restoration companies as they use special equipment to remove odors and particles. It is recommended to call the professionals to clean any amount of smoke damage due to the dangers of soot, the difficulty in the cleaning, and expertise required to restore/ensure the safety of the structure of the building.
Understanding the Damage
What is Soot and Smoke?
Soot is the fine black particles of amorphous carbon produced by incomplete combustion of household materials such as wood, plastics, sheetrock, synthetics, oil, coal, and other fuels.
Smoke is the fine visible vapor, gases and fine particles produced by burning material. The chemicals in smoke vary based on what material is burning and the temperature of the burning material.
Different Types of Smoke Damage Residue:
Depending on the material that burned and the temperature of the heat the soot and smoke residue left behind varies. Different residues require different methods of cleaning and removal.
Dry Smoke Residue:
Fast burning and high heat cause dry smoke residue which is usually powdery and dry. Wood and paper fires usually leave dry smoke residue. The powder is easy to wipe away but can settle in cracks and get deep into porous surfaces which can be harder to find and reach and still leave an odor behind.
Wet Smoke Residue:
Slow burning and low heat cause wet smoke residue which is usually a thick and sticky residue and has a strong odor. Rubber, plastics, and some fabrics will produce this residue which is easily smeared and spread.
Incomplete burning of organic material leaves an almost invisible residue and pungent odor. This residue can discolor varnishes, paints, and other finishes.
Fire Extinguisher Residue:
There are various types of fire extinguishers and they leave a few different residues.
The most common house fire extinguisher is a dry chemical fire extinguisher. A dry chemical extinguisher can be identified by the variations of the letters ABC. The firefighting agents commonly used are monoammonium phosphate, sodium bicarbonate, and potassium bicarbonate. These chemicals leave a corrosive powder which should be cleaned up before they destroy the surfaces they reside.
Kitchen fires should be put out with Class K wet chemical extinguishers which discharge a potassium acetate-based low-pH mist.
Oil, Oil based products, and smoke from fuel burning such as from furnances can leave behind a dark residue that discolors and stains surfaces as well as leave a strong odor. Degreasing cleaners work best on this type of residue.
Cleaning the Fire Extinguisher Residue:
Dry Chemical Residue –
Remove loose debris by vacuuming or sweeping. It is recommended to use a HEPA filtered vacuum.
Create a solution of 50% isopropyl alcohol and 50% warm water.
Spray the solution on the sticky reside and let it sit for several minutes before rinsing with warm water.
To neutralize sodium bicarbonate and potassim bicarbonate based dry chemicals, make a solution of 98% hot water and 2% vinegar and wash the area with the solution and wait a few minutes before rinsing with warm water. To make the solution mix one cup of vinegar with three gallons of water.
To neutralize monoammonium phosphate based dry chemical, make a solution of hot water and baking soda and wash the area and wait a few minutes before rinsing with warm water. Make the solution with one cup of baking soda to three gallons of water.
Wash the area with a solution of mild soap and water then rinse.
Blow dry to remove residual water.
Class K Wet Chemical -
Put on gloves and wipe away the foamy residue with hot, soapy water.
Soot is dangerous due to being corrosive, acidic, and small (2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter). Breathing in soot can cause respiratory illnesses and conditions such as asthma and bronchitis as well as cause coronary heart disease. The fine powder that makes up soot may contain a number of carcinogens, including arsenic, cadmium, and chromium.
NIOSH-approved Face mask
HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) Filtered Vacuum
Soot Sponge/Dry Chemical Sponge
Cleaning Chemicals such as TSP
The Cleaning Process:
- Prepare to enter by wearing protective gear such as a respiratory protective face mask and gloves.
- Place box fans in open windows to force out the contaminated air.
- Remove loose soot and debris with a dry cleaning soot sponge.
- Wash every surface with soap and water. Start at the top and work down towards the floor and remember to open every container and get in every crack and crevice.
- Vacuum furniture and carpeting with a HEPA filtered vacuum. Change the filter regularly as you clean soot.
- If the fire affected the outside attach a water hose to a spray bottle filled with smoke and soot cleaner.
Tips to Clean Smoke Damage
- If the fire happened in the kitchen be sure to clean the faucet before drinking water
- If your water, gas, or electricity was turned off by the fire department do not turn it on without checking with them that it is safe to do so.
- Contact Police Department if there is an opening such as a window or a door exposed and you are leaving your house for an extended period to prevent theft.
- Call your insurance agent to first check if you are covered for the damage. Performing repairs or cleanup before they have inspected it can cause your claim to be denied.
Organizations That May Be Able to Help:
- American Red Cross
- Religious Organizations
- Public agencies such as the public health department (check with county/town clerk)
- Local Community Support Groups
- Crisis Counseling Centers
- State Emergency Services or Management Offices
- Salvation Army