Interior clean up
When you’re ready to move inside, do so with extreme caution. Open all doors carefully and never force them ajar; the doorway could be supporting the building’s (now precarious) structure, and shifting its position could lead to injury, further damage, or even a collapse. Find an alternate entry to the front door if necessary, and consult a building inspector or fire marshal before entering any interior rooms with a jammed door.
Once you’re inside, stop and sniff for a gas leak. If you even think you detect the odor, or if you hear a suspicious hissing sound that could be a broken gas line, leave the house immediately and call the fire department. Follow their instructions implicitly and be sure to let your neighbors know what’s going on so they can take the necessary precautions.
As you begin your interior inspection, don’t forget to look up; the ceiling may be unstable or show signs of sagging from water collection. Similarly, the walls and flooring may have been weakened from fire or water damage, so step lightly and test any areas that look questionable before putting your own weight on them. You can use thick plywood panels or wood boards to cover unstable areas, just be sure they extend at least 8-12 inches on each side of the damaged area.
Use fans and open windows to increase the circulation of air throughout the home. If there’s a great amount of water damage and you live in a warm, humid climate, it may be better to keep the windows shut and instead opt for a dehumidifier. In cold weather, the heating system can help remove humidity from the air — just don’t forget to check and clean the filter each day.
Dry any wet items like drapes, carpet, and furniture as soon as possible to avoid permanent mold and mildew damage. Aluminum foil or plastic wrap can be placed under furniture legs for protection, and any fully-dried items can be enclosed in plastic until all cleanup is completed. You’ll need to completely remove large area rugs for proper drying, especially those that extend wall-to-wall.
Before you can start working on ridding your house and belongings of smoke odor, you’ll first need to address any soot. Soot is quite oily, meaning it’s easily transferred among items and prone to staining. You may be able to remove it yourself by taking the vacuum hose and holding it slightly off the surface of the item or area. Never use an upright vacuum or brush tools when removing soot, as that can cause the soot to grind deeper into fabric and carpet. You may even want to hire a professional carpet cleaner to remove the soot with a professional grade heavy-duty shop vacuum designed for these purposes.
To remove soot from walls, use a chemical sponge or another non-water based cleaner. (Be especially careful with plaster walls — water-based cleaners can actually cause the soot to bleed into the wall.) You may have success using paint thinner or rubbing alcohol, though you’ll want to ensure the room you’re working in has adequate ventilation before you begin.
Removing smoke odor from fabrics can be a tricky process, but the good news is that you have several options for treatment. For clothing, it may help to add 1-2 cups of vinegar to each wash load, though it may take several cycles to completely remove it. For persistent smells, try dissolving one cup of dishwasher detergent with one gallon of warm water and soaking the items overnight. Wash them as usual the next day. Never attempt to counter the smell with fabric refreshers or perfumes — at best, it will only mask the smell temporarily, and it could even amplify the problem.
For clothing that can be bleached, try mixing 4-6 tablespoons of trisodium phosphate (which can usually be found at your local hardware store), one cup of household chlorine bleach, and one gallon of water. Swish around the clothes and work the mixture through the fabric as much as possible, then rinse them with clean water.
When it comes to furniture and other items unable to be thrown in the wash, consult your local dry cleaner on which counteractants would be best to use; he may have several recommendations based on which items were affected, so be sure to tell him the kinds of materials you’ll be treating. He may even be able to suggest items for your laundry if you’re still having trouble removing the odor from clothing.
A major problem with smoke odor is that it can travel quite easily, including through walls and air ducts. Unfortunately, this means it can get trapped in air ducts and cause a recurring odor even months after the fire. Your best option to ensure your entire house gets aired out properly is to consult a professional about thermal fogging, a process that opens the pores of walls and neutralizes the smoke odor. It’s especially helpful in homes with attics, though you’ll likely need to remove odor-absorbing insulation from the attic either way.
While there are plenty of ways to clean up your home and property yourself, keep in mind that bringing in a professional may be the best route for certain tasks. While costly, these experts will know the best ways to get your home back to its pre-fire condition; plus, the expense will likely be significantly less than having to replace items after failed attempts to refurbish them yourself. Keep detailed records and receipts for both you and the insurance company; some of the repairs may be tax-deductible.
The fire recovery process comes with plenty of challenges and frustrations, so be sure you have a strong support system to help you through it. You may even discover that the cleanup process helps your family come together as one and bond, so look for silver linings as often as you can. With time, your home will look more like you remember it — perhaps even better! — and with patience, your emotional wounds will heal, as well.
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