Where There’s Fire, There’s Smoke: Clearing the Air After a House Fire

Smoke from an otherwise small house fire can cause significant damage. Exercise caution as you clear it from your home, or your efforts could make the problem worse. Remember to call your insurance company or landlord before you attempt to move, clean or throw away anything.

Prevent Further Damage

Air out every room in the house, even if it wasn’t exposed directly to the fire. Open a window and, provided your utilities are safe to use, get some fans running. Consider also using a dehumidifier if the room has suffered water damage, to prevent mold from growing. In cold weather, change your furnace filter daily until it stops showing signs of soot. Remove brass and copper items to be cleaned immediately, as smoke can become permanently etched into them within 24 hours of exposure.

Remove the Soot

Soot will stain and leave oily residue on textiles in your home, including drapes, furniture and clothing, so it needs to be vacuumed up before any other cleaning can take place. It is recommended that you hire a professional with a heavy-duty vacuum for best results. If you decide to remove the soot yourself, keep the vacuum nozzle slightly above the surface of the item as you clean it. Do not use attachments or an upright vacuum because the brushes force soot into fabrics. Before you begin, cover rugs or other textiles in the area to avoid spreading the soot around. Your carpet will need to be cleaned twice: once before repairs and once after.

Remove the Smell

Smoke is difficult to remove, so it might be best to hire a restoration company. Professionals can use chemicals called “counteractants” to break up the smoke molecules and eliminate the odor. They also might use ozone treatments or thermal fogging, which will require your house to be tented.

Avoid household deodorizers if you want to try to tackle the smell yourself. These products’ effects are only temporary and can sometimes recombine with smoke molecules, causing further problems. Some textiles can be cleaned by dissolving one cup of automatic dishwasher detergent in one gallon of warm water, submerging the object and letting it soak overnight. Wash as normal the next day. If an item can be bleached, mix 4 to 6 tablespoons of trisodium phosphate with 1 cup of household bleach and 1 gallon of water. Add clothes, rinse with clear water and dry.

Remove smoke from walls with a chemical sponge. Paint thinner or rubbing alcohol may also work, but be cautious of toxic fumes. Wear rubber gloves and ensure the area is well-ventilated. Avoid water-based cleaners on plaster walls, as they cause stains to bleed in. Attic insulation may need to be replaced in its entirety, since it retains the smell of smoke.

Recovering after a house fire can be draining. Remember to reach out for support and the resources available to speed you along the road toward recovering your home and life as usual.