Fire Damage Restoration Tips: Smoke, Soot + Ash Removal Guide
Fires are a common occurrence in California and can devastate entire communities. It is a life-changing experience for those who lose friends or family members, their homes, or their businesses, and some are never able to fully recover.
Those who survive the fire with minimal or no damage to their homes are very fortunate, but recovery may still take some time. This is particularly true if the fire was close enough to your home to cause soot, smoke or water damage. And, even if the fire never threatened your home, fires occurring miles away can still deposit ash and cause your home to smell like smoke.
Professional cleaning and restoration services are recommended for homes with significant fire damage or water damage incurred while firefighters defended your home. Depending on when your home was constructed, there may be asbestos, and water damage could be more extensive than what is visible to the amateur eye. These are just two examples of why significant damage or cleanup should be handled by professionals.
Because it is best to leave major fire cleanups to the professionals, this guide is intended for homeowners looking for fire cleaning tips for removing the effects of ash, soot or smoke from their homes and outdoor living areas.
Fire Damage Restoration Tips: Before You Begin
Before any fire cleanup efforts begin, you must ensure that the area is safe. Confirm that evacuation orders have been lifted and assess your property and the surrounding area for spots that may still be smoldering and could ignite. If your home is in an area that was evacuated, your local fire marshal or law enforcement will be able to tell you if it is okay to return to your home to assess damage and begin cleanup efforts.
If your home or property sustained damage that you need to report to your insurance company, contact your representative immediately to get a claims adjuster out to assess the damage before you begin removing debris or cleaning. Depending on the extent of the damage, your insurance company may arrange for and pay for water damage, fire cleanup and restoration. At the very least, they will be able to tell you how they want you to document the damage or submit repairs and receipts.
If your home experienced significant fire or water damage, it is best to hire a company that specializes in this type of cleanup to do the work for you. While this is more expensive than doing it yourself, it is particularly important if there is water damage that could lead to mold without proper remediation or fire damage that could have released asbestos fibers into the air. A lack of proper cleanup and restoration could make matters worse, increase damage to your home or put your health at risk.
In the case of asbestos, the potential health hazards are too high for homeowners to complete this work themselves. We highly recommend hiring an asbestos abatement team to remove any potential hazards before partaking in any further fire cleanup efforts. Therefore, we will not be addressing asbestos cleanup in this guide, but you can get a better understanding of the process from the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District’s Asbestos and Fire Cleanup page.
Even if your home sustained minimal or no damage and is only in need of ash and smoke removal, it may still be best to bring in a professional cleaning crew. For example, people with cardiovascular or respiratory issues, including asthma, should not assist in cleaning up ashes and should avoid smoke.
Before you begin cleaning your home after a fire, make sure you are safely attired for the job. This will include long pants, long-sleeved shirt, safety glasses and a NIOSH-approved N95 or P100 mask or respirator. If your home sustained damage or you will be doing more than dusting, sweeping and the like, then your attire should also include sturdy shoes with a thick sole, thick work gloves and a hard hat. If you don’t happen to have a hard hat on hand, a bike helmet can provide some head protection as well.
Fire Damage Restoration Tips: Exterior Ash and Smoke Removal
When cleaning the exterior of your home and your outdoor living areas, there are two things that are quite tempting but should not be done: rinsing ash into storm drains and using your leaf blower.
It is important that you avoid rinsing ash into storm drains as much as possible. This is true of all ash, but it is particularly true of ash caused by structure fires or fires that have burned anything other than trees and bushes.
It is also important that you do not use a leaf blower to remove ash from your roof, driveway, lawn or other surfaces. This will reintroduce the ash into the air. In some cases, this can also be a fire hazard, since smoldering areas could flare up or you could blow embers into a flammable area and cause ignition.
When cleaning the exterior of your home after a fire, you should start at the top and work your way down. Therefore, your first stop will be your roof. Use a broom to gently sweep ashes into a pile. Collect the ashes in a bag for disposal in your trash can. If this does not adequately remove smaller particles from your roof, you can follow the sweeping with wet mopping.
You can use a smaller brush, broom or scoop to remove the ash from your gutters; just be careful to not disturb the ash any more than necessary to avoid redistributing it into the air. You can then use a damp rag or cloth to wipe down your gutters to remove smaller particles. If you have a shop vacuum with a particulate filter, you can get a special attachment that allows you to vacuum the ashes from your gutter without dispersing them into the air.
You will likely be able to remove ash and light soot from exterior walls and windows by simply spraying them down with a garden hose using a nozzle to direct the water. A pressure washer may be necessary for stubborn spots. If so, use the lowest pressure possible to get the job done without damaging wood, stucco or nearby hardscapes. Whenever possible, direct the water towards your lawn, flowerbeds or bare patches of earth and keep it away from storm drains.
Once you have removed the ash and soot from your windows with a garden hose or pressure washer, you can clean them as usual using your favorite glass cleaner or a mixture of vinegar and water.
If chemical fire retardant was dropped in your area and residue is on your walls or windows, you may need to use a scrub brush with dish soap or another mild cleanser to remove the residue. If fire retardant foam was used, you can first try removing it with a scrub brush and dish soap. If this does not work, you can make a mildly abrasive cleanser by mixing a paste of baking soda and water.
When it is time to clean your hardscapes, such as concrete driveways, wood decks, paving stone patios or brick walkways, gently sweep the ash into a pile, collect it in bags, and dispose of it in your outdoor waste bin. Do not use a blower, since this will disperse the ash into the air. You can wet mop the surface after sweeping if additional removal of smaller particles is needed.
A pressure washer can be used to remove ash and soot from hardscapes, but please keep in mind that pressure washing can damage bricks, concrete or paving stones. Before using a pressure washer for fire cleanup on your driveway, patio or walkways, we recommend reading Can Pressure Washing Damage Concrete, Pavers and Bricks?
If firefighters or other first responders were on your property to defend your home from the fire, you may now have lots of tire marks on your concrete or paving stone driveway. You can find out how to remove tire marks from concrete and paving stones here.
If you need to remove ash from an artificial grass lawn, you can do so by sweeping the ash off of the grass and into bags for disposal. As you clean the ash from your lawn, check for melted or burnt spots left by the fire. If your lawn was damaged, the affected areas can be replaced.
If a small amount of ash is on your natural grass lawn, in your vegetable garden or in your flowerbeds, dampen the area with a garden hose every couple of days to encourage the ash to work into the soil. You can also use a hose to rinse off plants, bushes and trees. A damp cloth can be used to wipe down leaves. If you have food-producing plants, be sure to thoroughly wash all produce before consuming.
If you have a swimming pool and there is ash in the water, The City of San Diego recommends recapturing the water to avoid sending it into storm drains. However, if this is not possible, the city notes, “You may pump your pool water into the storm drain system if the pH level is 7-8, no algae is present and the water does not contain chemicals to counteract the chlorine.” If this is necessary, the city asks that you filter the water through filter fabric before it enters the storm drain system.
Homeowners living in other areas should contact their local government to determine how best to remedy ashes in pool water. In some cases, it may be recommended to filter the water and send it into the sewer system, rather than a storm drain.
Fire cleanup for outdoor living areas will likely include sweeping ash off or your patios, decks and patio roof. Once that is complete and the ash has been collected in bags for disposal in the trash bin, you will need to address other items, such as patio furniture or your outdoor kitchen.
If there is excessive ash present, use a soft brush or hand broom to sweep it off of counter tops, tables, benches and chairs. Follow this by wiping down all surfaces with a damp rag and mild cleanser. If you have natural stone counter tops, be sure to use a cleanser specifically designed for use on natural stone surfaces. If there is a small amount of ash on your counters, chairs or tables, you should be able to simply dust them using a cloth or rag.
If your patio cushion covers are removable, you may be able to remove smoke odors by washing them. Add ½ cup of baking soda to the drum and one cup of vinegar where you would normally pour in bleach or fabric softener. You may need to wash them more than once to completely remove the smell. Alternatively, you can have your patio cushions dry cleaned or, in some cases, ozone treatment may be necessary.
You have the same options for cleaning patio curtains and other textiles used in your outdoor living areas.
Patio rugs will likely need to be professionally cleaned or undergo ozone treatment to remove odors. In some cases, you may be able to simply shampoo them yourself if the odor is minimal.
Fire Damage Restoration Tips: Interior Ash and Smoke Removal
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends that you have “heating, ventilating and air-conditioning units and all ductwork professionally cleaned to remove soot, ash and smoke residue.” They further recommend that you change your HVAC filters right away and that you continue to change the filters once a month during the first year after the fire.
If possible, it is a good idea to do this first so that you will be breathing cleaner air while you do the rest of your interior fire cleanup. Whether or not you are able to schedule cleaning of your HVAC units and ductwork right away, you will also want to begin to remove smoke particles and clean the air in your home by setting up one or more air purifiers with HEPA filters (not HEPA-type filters).
If you have ash, soot and smoke inside your home, you will likely want to remove the ash first, then the soot, then the smoke odors. If you have only ash and smoke, remove the ash first, and then begin working on removing the smoke smell. Keep in mind that this only refers to removing the smell of smoke; your air purifiers should be cleaning the air as soon as possible.
Ash can be removed from most surfaces with a dust cloth. Be sure to wipe down all books, picture frames, toys and décor, as well as the tables or shelves on which they sit. A hand broom or brush can be used to sweep ash of off furniture. Be particularly careful when removing ash from textiles, such as sofa cushions, since you can push the ash down into the fabric. On solid surfaces that will not be damaged by moisture, you can dust the surface, wipe the surface down with a damp cloth, and then dry it with a dry cloth for a more thorough cleaning.
After you have removed the ash from your furnishings and décor, you can sweep up any ash on the floor, collect it in bags and place it in your outdoor waste bin. Follow this by wet mopping the floor to remove remaining residue.
You are going to be tempted to vacuum up the ashes, but this is usually not a good idea. As the California Association of Health Facilities points out, “Shop vacuums and other common vacuum cleaners do not filter out small particles, but rather blow such particles out the exhaust in the air where they can be breathed.”
Therefore, the association does not recommend using shop vacuums or non-HEPA filter vacuums; however, you can use a HEPA filter vacuum, if you happen to have one.
The next step is tackling any soot in your home. The Red Cross recommends using either a mild soap or creating a mixture of one gallon of warm water, one cup of bleach and four to six tablespoons of trisodium phosphate (TSP), which is available at hardware stores. Trisodium phosphate is an industrial cleaning product, so you might want to try the mild soap first to see if it is enough to remove the soot for your walls, floors, ceilings or furnishings. If it is not, be sure to wear gloves when using TSP as part of your fire cleanup.
Whether you choose the soap or the mixture with bleach and TSP, the Red Cross recommends starting at the floor and working your way to the ceiling to avoid streaking. It is also noted that you should clean one small area at a time and rinse it with plain water immediately afterwards.
The next problem to tackle is the smoke smell, which is the main issue for most homeowners recovering from a fire near their home. The first thing to know when addressing this issue is that odor-masking sprays will not work. They might cover up the smell for a few days, but it will return. And, in the meantime, you are just adding more chemicals to the air.
You may have some success washing clothes, towels and bedding that smell like smoke. Add one-half to one cup of baking soda to the drum and one cup of vinegar to the bleach or fabric softener receptacle for each load. For particularly strong-smelling textiles that can be soaked, you can try soaking fabrics overnight in a mixture of one cup of backing soda per one gallon of water before putting them through the appropriate washing cycle (according to the instructions on the label).
Bulkier bedding items, such as comforters, window coverings and other larger textiles can likely be dry cleaned, so contact your local dry cleaner for recommendations for these items.
You can try shampooing your carpets and rugs and sprinkling baking soda on them (left overnight, and then vacuumed), but you will likely find that your rugs and carpets will need to be professionally cleaned.
For general removal of the smoke smell in your home, one key component is the HEPA filter air purifier previously mentioned. This will help clean the air and improve the smell of your home. You can also set out bowls of vinegar, baking soda, coffee or charcoal overnight to help absorb the smell. If you have time to order them online or find them locally, there are many types of odor-absorbing packets available at places like Amazon.com, Lowes and Home Depot. Examples include commercially available packets of bamboo charcoal or silica gel crystals designed to absorb odors.
You can also try commercially available odor-removing sprays, just be sure that you are purchasing a product designed to remove odors, not mask them.
If none of these options work, you may have to contact a company offering ozone treatments to fully remove smoke odors from your clothing, curtains, rugs and other belongings.