Having a fire in your home, even a small one, can be a very traumatic and trying experience. As a victim, you may be initially overwhelmed by what has happened, and you will have many questions as to where to go, what to do next, and where to find help. We have provided this page to help guide you with recovering from a fire in your home, and to help answer some of the questions you might have. Much of the information provided here is also relevant to other possible misfortunes, such as water damage from a busted pipe, or damage to your home from a natural disaster.
This page starts with how to help prepare and protect yourself in case you ever have the misfortune of having a fire in your home. Subsequent sections discuss the immediate concern of securing your home, how and where to get started with recovering from the loss, and how to salvage the possessions that may have survived. There is also a section on why the fire department seemingly causes some damage during a house fire. As always, the "Learn More" section (bottom of the page) points you in the direction of even more helpful information regarding this topic.
The road to recovery should start in advance of any fire that may happen in your home. The first step is to talk to your insurance agent about your homeowner's or renter's coverage to make sure it is adequate. Expensive items such as cameras and jewelry may need to be "scheduled" so that they are covered for their full replacement value. Your insurer may also suggest that you create an inventory of all the possessions in your home, complete with photographs. This will help prove your claim should it come in question.
Be sure to protect your important documents. A home inventory complete with pictures is useless if it was consumed in the fire. Place important documents such as insurance policies, passports, birth certificates, wills, savings bonds, etc., in a home fire-resistant safe, at a minimum. Another option is to place documents such as these in a safety deposit box at a local bank.
In addition to protecting your documents, keep a list of essential phone numbers in a location other than your home of some of the following examples:
- Doctors & Pharmacy
- Bank & Accountants
- Utility Companies
- Insurance Company
- Medical, Home, & Auto policy numbers
- Family & Neighbor contacts
- Work numbers
- American Red Cross
Depending on the severity of the fire, you may be displaced from your home immediately, possibly in the middle of the night, and for an extended time. Lodging for your family may be easy enough to come by but for your pets it will be more difficult. Have a contingency plan for boarding your pets in an emergency. If a relative, friend or neighbor cannot take them in; know where you can board them on short notice. Also, know which veterinarians in your area provide on call emergency care should a pet be injured in a fire.
Securing the Premise
After the fire is out, the homeowner will naturally want to enter their home to survey the damage for themselves, and to retrieve essential items such as clothing, eye glasses and medications, and items of value such as family heirlooms, jewelry, etc. However, the homeowner should be prepared for the fact that they might not be allowed to enter their own home for a period of time determined at the discretion of the fire department.
When the fire department is dispatched to a residence for an emergency incident, they have the legal right to bar any and all entry to the premises for a period of time as they see fit. In essence, the fire department or their designee becomes the legal, temporary owner of the property. There are two good reasons for this with the foremost being your safety.
Dependent upon the severity of the fire, the structure may have suffered critical structural damage making it unsafe for habitation, or even a walkthrough by the occupants. Floors and walls could be in danger of collapsing, utilities may have to be terminated; irremovable debris poses an ever-present danger compounded by floors made slippery from water and soot.
While not life-threatening, the second reason is no less serious. The fire department or their designee has the legal obligation to conduct an investigation to determine the cause and origin of the fire. To ensure the integrity of the scene and any possible evidence, the investigator will certainly bar any entry until they are satisfied that their investigation is complete. Do not be offended as this is standard operating procedure, regardless of whether foul play was involved or not.
The fire department will not keep you out of your home any longer than what is absolutely necessary. If you home is still inhabitable, you will be allowed to return after a few hours, in most cases. Should the fire department deny you access to your home, they will certainly make every effort to retrieve any items from your home that you request, if it can be done safely, and does not interfere with their investigation. If you must vacate your residence, make sure to take important items such as your driver's license and Social Security cards, insurance and medical information, your medications, eyeglasses, hearings aids and other prosthetic devices, and valuables such as cash, credit cards, bank books and jewelry.
In some cases the fire department or a town official may bar your access to the property for an extended period of time because of safety concerns or an investigation. Generally, a visible warning will be posted on the premises such as fire line tape, door seals or a notice of condemnation. Do not enter your property without permission from the proper authority. To do so may place your safety at risk, and expose you to arrest and further legal action.
If you are forced to vacate your residence because of the fire, the fire department will make every effort to secure the structure to the best of their ability. Windows and doors that were damaged, and holes in roofs and walls will usually be covered with plywood, plastic sheeting and tarps. Utilities will be terminated by the fire department or other appropriate agencies. Do not attempt to restore any utilities yourself. Even if your utilities were not damaged in the fire, have the appropriate agencies inspect and reestablish your services.
If a police officer is not on-scene at the incident, contact the police department and let them know that your home will be unoccupied. They may post an officer on the premises to safeguard it, or have it patrolled to discourage criminal activity.
Road to Recovery
Should you be displaced from your home, you will have several immediate concerns including finding temporary shelter. Friends and neighbors may be able to take you in for the immediate term, but for extended periods you will probably need to locate a hotel, or even rent an apartment, condominium or house. You may have also lost some essential items in the fire such as clothing, medicine, eyeglasses, food, etc. For help with these issues, or with assistance getting back on your feet, contact your local American Red Cross, Salvation Army, or department of social services.
If you are going to be displaced for some time, notify the following persons and agencies that you have relocated and for how long a duration:
- Insurance Agencies
- Mortgage Company
- Family & Friends
- Your employer
- Your child's school
- The Post Office & any package delivery services
- Fire & Police departments
- Utility Companies
Insurance agencies are first on that list for good reason, as you should notify them immediately of any losses. Even though the fire department will do its best to cover any openings created in your home, ask your insurance company about what to do regarding your home such as further protecting it from the elements, pumping the water out of the basement, etc. Also ask them about any other actions they may require of you such as creating an inventory of damaged items and their value. Hopefully the homeowner will have already created an inventory list for just such an occasion.
If you must hire anyone to immediately address any issues with your home, talk with your insurance agency prior to contracting for any services. You should also be diligent in saving receipts for any money you spend regarding the fire. These receipts are essential if you want to recover any out-of-pocket costs from your insurance agency, and for verifying any losses from the fire you might plan to claim on your income taxes. Yes; if your property is damaged due to a fire, you might be eligible for a tax deduction. Talk to your tax preparer for information regarding this issue.
Hopefully your insurance is adequate to cover your losses. If you had no insurance at all, the following organizations may be able to assist you or provide information on where to turn:
- American Red Cross
- Salvation Army
- Religious organizations
- Department of Social Services
- Civic organizations
- State or Municipal Emergency Services Office
- non-profit crisis counseling centers
Another daunting task will be replacing any of the valuable records or documents that you may have lost in the fire. Hopefully you took the proper precautions to prevent their loss, but if not, the following table contains a list of items to help you remember what might have been lost, and where to turn for help in replacing them.
- Driver's License, auto registration - Department of Motor Vehicles
- Social Security or Medicare cards - local Social Security office
- Passports - passport service, post offices and other institutions
- Citizenship papers - U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
- Birth, death & marriage certificates - bureau of records in the appropriate state
- Bank books (checking, savings, etc.) - your bank, as soon as possible
- Credit cards - issuing companies, as soon as possible
- Stocks & bonds - issuing companies or your broker
- Income tax records - IRS center where you filed or your accountant
- Insurance policies - your insurance agent or company
- Mortgage papers - lending institution
- Titles to deeds records - department of the locality in which the property is located
- Wills - your lawyer
- Prepaid burial contract - issuing company
- Divorce papers - circuit court where decree was issued
- Military discharge papers - Department of Veteran Affairs
- Medical records - your doctor
- Warranties - issuing company
- Animal registration papers - American Kennel Club or Humane Society
Salvage & Restoration
After a fire, it is only natural that a homeowner will want to put their life back in order as soon as it is possible. Depending on the severity of the damage, the home might actually still be inhabitable. Even if it is not, some items from the home may certainly be salvageable.
For those items that are not salvageable, do not discard them until you have checked with your insurance provider. In all likelihood, they will want to inspect any and all items that you intend to claim as a loss. In the interest of protecting yourself, it is a good idea that you inventory and photograph the items which you intend to claim.
A professional fire and water damage restoration service is probably your best chance for cleaning and restoring any salvageable items and your home's interior. Your insurance company can probably help you hire a company as this service may be covered under your insurance policy. If not, check your local phone book to locate a company specializing in this service. Other items such as electrical appliances, books, etc. may need specialized care provided by other repair and restoration services.
The following information is provided to assist the homeowner with salvaging items damaged in a fire, and warrants a few words of caution. The following information is provided as is, without guarantee, and the reader agrees that they use it at their own risk. The reader must always remember to exercise due caution and common sense.
Several of the following cleaning solutions contain Tri-Sodium Phosphate, commonly known as TSP, which is a caustic substance commonly used as a cleaning agent. Before using Tri-Sodium Phosphate the reader must fully read and understand the manufacturer's instructions regarding the use and storage of the product.
Always follow the garment's instructions regarding cleaning, and before you apply any type of treatment to an article of clothing, first test the garment in an inconspicuous place. The following solution may help to remove the odor of smoke and soot from clothing that can be bleached:
- 4 to 6 tablespoons of Tri-Sodium Phosphate
- 1 cup of household cleaner or chlorine bleach
- 1 gallon of warm water
- Mix well, add clothes, rinse with clean water and dry thoroughly. Wear rubber gloves when using this solution.
An effective way to remove mildew from clothing is to wash the fresh stain with soap and warm water, rinse, and then dry in the sun. If the stain has not disappeared, use lemon juice and salt or a diluted solution of household chlorine bleach.
Rugs & Carpets
Remove any furniture or other items which sit on your rugs or carpets. Wet and damp rugs and carpets should be allowed to dry completely. Throw rugs can be cleaned by beating, sweeping, or vacuuming, and then shampooing. Rugs should be dried as quickly as possible by lying them flat and exposing them to a circulation of warm, dry air, such as with a fan. Even though the surface may seem dry, moisture remaining at the base of the tufts can quickly cause the rug to rot. For information regarding the cleaning and preservation of carpets, call your carpet dealer or installer, or a qualified carpet cleaning professional.
Walls, Floors, & Countertops
To remove the smell of smoke and soot from walls, floors and countertops, use a mild soap or detergent, or the following solution:
- 4 to 6 tablespoons of Tri-Sodium Phosphate
- 1 cup of household cleaner or chlorine bleach
- 1 gallon of warm water
- Always rinse surfaces afterwards with clean warm water and dry thoroughly. Wear rubber gloves when using this solution.
Start by testing any cleaning solution in an inconspicuous place. Work from the floor up and then rinse with clean water and dry. Ceilings should be washed last. Do not repaint walls or ceiling until they are completely dry.
It may be possible to repair and clean wallpaper. Use a commercial paste to repair a loose edge or section. Contact your wallpaper dealer or installer for information regarding cleaners. Washable wall paper may be cleaned like an ordinary wall, but be careful not to soak the paper. Work from the bottom to the top to prevent streaking and dry thoroughly.
Drywall and insulation that has been soaked will need to be replaced as it cannot be dried-out, and will lose its structural integrity and resistance to mold and mildew.
Remove drawers and any items sitting on or in your wood furniture. If your furniture is just wet, remove any remaining water from it and allow the furniture to dry thoroughly. Expedite the process by opening doors and windows for ventilation, using a fan to move air over it, or run your air conditioner or furnace if necessary. Do not dry wood furniture in the sun as it can warp, and veneers can be damaged.
While there are home-remedies for cleaning wood furniture, we strongly recommend contacting the manufacturer or the furniture store where you purchased it from for guidelines regarding its cleaning. There are numerous woods and finishes used in the furniture industry and one cleaning solution might work fine on a certain piece of furniture, but ruin another.
Locks & Hinges
The exterior of most locks, door knobs and hinges can be cleaned with soapy water or common household cleaners. Make sure to dry them thoroughly when done. Locks and door knobs should be disassembled and wiped with oil. If the lock or door knob cannot be removed, squirt a lubricant approved by the manufacturer through the bolt opening or keyhole, and work the mechanism to distribute the lubricant. Hinges can be lubricated with a light oil or graphite.
Do not use appliances that have been exposed to water or steam until a qualified technician has inspected and serviced them. This is especially true of electrical appliances as water and subsequent corrosion can cause short-circuits and possibly fires. In addition, steam can remove the lubricant from some moving parts.
If the fire department or utility company terminated your home's utility services during the incident, do to attempt to reestablish them yourself. Have the utility company or qualified contractor reestablish them for you.
Your pots, pans, utensils, flatware, etc. should be washed with soapy water, rinsed and then polished with a fine powdered cleaner approved for that specific item. Be careful with Teflon-coated cookware as cleaners which are safe for stainless steel cookware may not be safe for Teflon. There are polishes made specifically for copper and brass, or you can try salt sprinkled on a piece of lemon, or salt sprinkled on a cloth saturated with vinegar.
Discard any food, beverages or medicines that were exposed to heat, smoke, soot or water, regardless of how minor an exposure it was. Do not use canned goods that were exposed to heat, or show signs of bulging or rusting. Otherwise, wash canned goods and food in jars in soap and water. Do not refreeze frozen food which has thawed.
To help remove the odor from a refrigerator or freezer, thoroughly was the interior with a solution of baking soda and water, or use on cup of vinegar or household ammonia diluted in one gallon of water. Try placing an open container of baking soda or a piece of charcoal inside to help absorb any residual odor.
Leather & Books
Wipe leather goods with a damp cloth and then a dry cloth. Stuff purses and shoes with newspaper to help them retain their shape and leave suitcases open. Leather should be dried away from the heat and the sun. When leather is dry, clean it with saddle soap. Rinse leather and suede jackets in cold water and dry away from the heat and sun.
Wet books should be attended to as soon as possible. The best chance for saving books is to have them frozen in a vacuum freezer by a professional service. This process removes the moisture without damaging the pages. If you cannot get your books to a vacuum freezer immediately, then place them in a normal freezer until a vacuum freezer is available.
A local librarian may be able to help you locate a restoration service. If not, try inquiring at a library located in a local university. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works may also be able to help you find a conservator to help salvage your books.
Hopefully your money did not literally, go up in smoke. If you had paper currency, coins or U.S. Savings Bonds damaged in a fire, you may be able to still salvage them and have them replaced.
Under regulations issued by the Department of the Treasury, mutilated United States currency may be exchanged at face value if more than 50% of a note identifiable as United States currency is present, or 50% or less of a note identifiable as United States currency is present, and the method of mutilation and supporting evidence demonstrates to the satisfaction of the Treasury that the missing portions have been totally destroyed.
Mutilated currency may be mailed or personally delivered to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. When mutilated currency is submitted, a letter should be included stating the estimated value of the currency and an explanation of how the currency became mutilated. Although Treasury examiners are usually able to determine the amount and value of mutilated currency, careful packaging is essential to prevent additional damage. The following procedures should be applied when packaging mutilated currency:
- Regardless of the condition of the currency, DO NOT DISTURB the fragments any more than is absolutely necessary.
- If the currency is brittle or inclined to fall apart, pack it carefully in plastic and cotton without disturbing the fragments and place the package in a secure container.
- If the currency was mutilated in a purse, box, or other container, it should be left in the container to protect the fragments and place the package in a secure container.
- If it is absolutely necessary to remove the fragments from the container, send the container along with the currency and any other contents that may have currency fragments attached.
- If the currency was flat when mutilated, do not roll of fold the notes.
- If the currency was in a roll when mutilated, do not attempt to unroll or straighten it out.
- If coin or any other metal is mixed with the currency, carefully remove it. Any fused, melted, or otherwise mutilated coins should be sent to the U.S. Mint (see below).
All mutilated currency should be sent by "Registered Mail, Return Receipt Requested." Insuring the shipment is the responsibility of the sender. Mail mutilated currency to:
Department of the Treasury
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Office of Currency Standards
P.O. Box 37048
Washington, D.C. 20013
Mutilated or melted coins can be taken to your regional Federal Reserve Bank or mailed by "Registered Mail, Return Receipt Requested." Insuring the shipment is the responsibility of the sender. Mail mutilated coins to:
P.O. Box 400
Philadelphia, PA 19105
U.S. Savings Bonds that are mutilated or destroyed can be replaced free of charge as long as the Bureau of Public Debt can establish that the bonds have not been cashed. To assure that the bonds can be traced; owners should keep records of bond serial numbers, issue dates, registration, and social security or employer identification numbers in a safe place separate from the bonds.
To get your bond replaced, you should complete Form PD F 1048. On this form, you need to provide the approximate issue date along with the complete names, address, and Social Security number that appeared on the bond, and the bond serial number. If you don't know the serial number or denomination, just write "unknown" in the space provided. Mail the completed form to:
Bureau of the Public Debt
Savings Bonds Operations
P.O. Box 1328
Parkersburg, WV 26106-1328
Besides salvaging your belongings, and having them replaced when they cannot be, your home is probably in need of some type of structural repair whether it is replacing a burned-away roof, or simply painting the walls. Some construction companies specialize in restoring homes that are damaged by fire. Companies such as this can possibly provide services such as:
- Securing you home against further damage from the elements or vandalism.
- Estimating and repairing structural damage.
- Estimating the cost to repair or replace items of personal property.
- Packing, transporting and storing remaining household items, including storing repaired items.
- Hiring the appropriate cleaning or repair subcontractors.
Before you hire any contractor to perform any work on your damaged home or provide any service, speak with your insurance company and make sure you understand their payment requirements. Be sure to get a written estimate from any company you could potentially hire, and check their references before hiring them.
Now that you are in the process of making plans to rebuild your home, consider installing a home sprinkler system and a monitored fire alarm system, as now would be the perfect time to install them. Ask yourself, could a home sprinkler system have reduced the amount of damage I suffered? Also, would a monitored fire alarm system have detected the fire faster, and would the fire department have gotten to my home sooner? Give some serious consideration installing these systems in your home.
Why Did They Do That?
To some onlookers, it might appear that the some of the things the fire department does during a house fire creates as much damage as they prevent. The truth is that breaking windows and cutting holes in your home actually helps us attack and extinguish the fire more effectively, and in the long-run, prevent more damage from occurring.
Usually the first things to go during the incident are the windows. Removing the windows accomplishes some very important objectives. Called "ventilation," this helps to rapidly remove the heat and smoke from inside the house. With improved visibility, firefighters will be able to attack the fire and search for victims in a faster, more efficient manner.
If the heat is not removed from your home it will continue to build-up and eventually spread inside the structure, possibly igniting fires in other areas of the home. Firefighters operating in excessive heat tire faster and have a more difficult time completing their job.
Also, less smoke and heat inside the structure means less damage as a result of them, and helps to raise the survivability for any victims trapped inside.
As with most things during a fire, the fire department attempts to accomplish their tasks by the quickest, most efficient means. There is no time to carefully remove the panes from a window, nor is it feasible in a smoke-filled environment. Only opening a window instead of completely removing it results in reduced ventilation, and in actuality may not produce effective ventilation at all. Window screens reduce effective ventilation by 50%, so they need to be removed also.
Another important function of completely removing a window is that the opening can now serve as an entrance/egress point for the structure. Instead of having only a few avenues in to and out of the structure, there are now many located throughout from which a victim can be removed, or a firefighter can make an exit in an emergency. However, for windows to function effectively in this manner, the opening needs to be completely clear so as not to impede any movement through it.
Cutting a hole in the roof is another ventilation technique, as heat naturally rises. Roof ventilation is very effective and when done properly in conjunction with other ventilation techniques, can actually help slow the spread of fire throughout the home.
After a fire is seemingly extinguished, firefighters might be observed removing exterior siding, pulling down ceilings and knocking holes in interior walls. This is called "overhaul" and the purpose is to find and extinguish any smoldering or flaming fires that might be lurking in hidden spaces. This is done to help achieve total extinguishment and to prevent "rekindles" which are re-ignitions after the fire department has left the scene.