What to Do After a House Fire

When a fire has burned down your house, what you do next can help you and your family recover faster. 

Preparation, particularly if your home is at risk of a wildfire, is vital. While you might already have taken steps to fire harden your home and establish an effective evacuation plan, many homeowners aren’t prepared to deal with the aftermath. 

Indeed, you may have questions about what to do after a house fire. In a wildfire aftermath in particular, there may still be dangers present. This article will highlight what to look out for and provide guidance as to how to proceed with fire damage cleanup and post-wildfire recovery.

Here’s everything you should know about what to do after a house fire.

Steps to take immediately after a house fire

Knowing what to do after a house fire will cut down your stress and financial pressures, reduce the risk of harm to you and your family, and help you move ahead quickly—financially, physically, and emotionally. These tips apply to any house fire, not just in the aftermath of a wildfire.

  1. Stay out and call 911 or your local emergency phone number. Even if your home doesn’t burn down, fire may have damaged the structure, toxic fumes could be present, and other dangers may exist after the flames have been extinguished. Wait until your local fire authority says it’s safe to re-enter. When it comes to what to do after a wildfire, your whole neighborhood or town may be too dangerous to enter.  
  2. Give first aid. If you or a family member is injured, the faster they get treatment, the better. You don’t want cuts to get infected or lungs damaged by smoke inhalation to become inflamed and progress to  respiratory distress. 
  3. Let your friends and family know you’re safe. Relieve the worry your friends and family may suffer if they don’t hear from you. Let everyone know you’re safe. Not only do you provide peace of mind, you free up first responders to tend to people who really need help. 
  4. Take care of your family and pets.  Take care of yourself first, so that you can be more useful to others. Make sure that every member of your family is accounted for and uninjured, including pets.
  5. Recognize emotional trauma. You, your family, and your pets may move through emotions from being scared, to feeling disoriented, and ultimately to dealing with feelings of loss and sometimes guilt. Get counseling as soon as you can, even if you think you’re handling things well.
  6. Reach out for help. Government organizations, charities, community groups, and religious organizations offer food, clothing, medicine, a place to stay, and help dealing with other aspects of the fire aftermath.
Steps to take after a house fire.
What to do if your house burned down.

What to do if your house burned down

Here are the steps you will need to take if fire has burned down your house.

  1. Don’t enter your residence unless it’s safe to do so. It’s especially important not to try to enter a burned-down house, as there will likely be many dangers present and you may risk injury. Avoid entering your property unless your local authorities say it’s ok to do so.
  2. Find a temporary place to stay. Your home insurance policy may help pay for temporary living costs. Community, religious, and service organizations can also help find you temporary housing. Keep receipts so that you can get reimbursed for the stay and be able to deduct it from your taxes.
  3. Contact the local relief service. Relief services can do more than give you a warm meal and a place to stay. Many have specialists who can help you through the legal and financial issues that result from a house fire. 
  4. Contact your insurance company. Call your insurance agent to start your claim. In addition to providing cash, insurance agents can connect you with contractors and specialists in fire damage cleanup. They may also provide guidance for what to do after a house fire.
  5. Request a copy of the fire report. Obtaining a copy of the fire report from your local fire department may make it easier to file your insurance claim and provide necessary information to your agent. Keep a record of this report with your important documents.
  6. Recover your personal belongings. Your insurance policy should pay to replace some or all of your personal belongings destroyed in the fire. Create a comprehensive list of what was destroyed, when it was purchased, and how much it cost. Take pictures of the damaged items as you conduct an inventory.

Before returning home after a fire

Returning home after a wildfire can be an emotional experience. You may not know what to expect, how damaged your home may be, or if your home is still standing. Here’s how to prepare yourself for what you might have to face.

How long after a wildfire can you return home?

You may be anxious to take the first steps of recovering your home from a wildfire. It can take days, possibly a week or more, before an area can be made safe enough to return to. First and foremost, do not attempt to return home until local officials have stated that it is safe to do so.

Types of fire damage to expect

After a wildfire and before you can start fire damage cleanup, you’ll need to survey the damage. If you’re lucky, the fire will not have burned down the house. Here are common types of fire damage you may find:

  • Smoke and soot damage. Smoke from a fire can penetrate deeply into the structure of your house and your belongings, and can be difficult to eradicate. Soot can leave an oily and toxic residue on any surface. 
  • Heat and burn damage. Heat can singe, melt, distort, and weaken parts of your house, with damage that extends far from the flames themselves. Burn damage is limited to the area of the active fire. 
  • Water damage and flooding. While water can put out a fire, it can cause nearly as much damage as the flames. It can stain some surfaces, damage belongings, and lead to mold, which is both unsightly and a health hazard.
  • Loss of vegetation. Wildfires destroy everything in their paths, including trees, bushes, plantings, and lawns. Water used to douse the fire can disturb and erode  landscapes.
Returning home after a fire.
Checklist for returning home after a wildfire.

Checklist for returning home after a wildfire

Once you’ve been given the all-clear to go home, drive carefully. Fire may have damaged trees, downed power lines, or loosened rocks that can fall on your car without warning. Closed roads and broken traffic lights cause delays and create risks. Be on the lookout for people, including other fire victims, first responders, and, sadly, potential criminals. Be just as aware of stray animals, both pets and wildlife, that may have been displaced by the fire.

Here are some tasks to do when entering your home after a house fire:

☑️ Contact your utilities. If you see that your home has suffered any damage at all, the first thing to do is contact your utility providers to make sure your gas and electricity are turned off before entering. 

☑️ Check for any hot spots on the ground. There may still be hot spots on the ground that can burn you or your pets. These may flare up and cause more fires without warning. To avoid these hot spots, stay away from any smoldering debris, live embers, burned trees and vegetation, and hot ashes.

☑️ Check for embers on your house’s exterior. Conduct your own inspection of your house, looking for hidden embers on the roof, in gutters, around soffits, under decks, and in crawl spaces. 

☑️ Report any electrical damage. Be sure to also stay away from any downed power lines or wires, and report any electrical damage to authorities as quickly as possible, as these are potential fire hazards. You may want to bring in a professional to assess your home’s electrical system.

☑️ Inspect trees near your home. Before entering your home, you should also inspect any trees surrounding your house. Trees damaged by the wildfire may be unstable and could potentially fall on your home. Check tree trunks for burns and burnt roots, as these are signs that the tree is unstable.

☑️ Clear debris away from your driveway. Dangerous pieces of wreckage, toxic materials, and sharp objects may block and litter your driveway. Carefully clear these away to protect yourself and your vehicle.

☑️ Check for any loosened rocks. A wildfire, along with the water and heavy equipment used to fight it, can disturb the landscape, upping the risk of rockfalls and mudslides. Make sure your home and driveway are not in the path of danger.

☑️ Ensure appliances are off before turning on power. Make sure all of your appliances are unplugged and devices are off before you switch on your main breaker, to prevent damage to them when the power surges back. 

☑️ Check for gas leaks. If you smell any gas, you and your family should evacuate the home immediately and contact your gas company. Do not turn on your electrical service and don’t use your cell phone in the area of the fumes.

☑️ Check for other damaged utilities. Fire and firefighting activities can damage water services in your town and on your property. You should also check your water heater, septic tank, and HVAC system. You may wish to flush your fans and ducts so that you don’t bring soot, toxins, or hidden embers into your house. Contact your local utility to report any problems.

☑️ Check the house interior for embers. You should also inspect the interior of your home for sparks and embers. Wind can carry embers into your home through windows and even your vents and ductwork.

☑️ Check for unstable walls. Even if you don’t see scorch marks from a fire, your home may be damaged by heat, making walls, foundations, and roofs unstable. While you can make your own inspection, you will benefit from bringing in a structural engineer to assess your home.

☑️ Check for any wild animals that may have entered your home. A wildfire often displaces wild animals, forcing them to flee into new territories, which may end up being your property. The stress of the fire and hunger may make them more aggressive and dangerous. 

☑️ Check for exposed sharp objects. Shattered glass, broken building materials, and exposed nails pose a hazard around any area in the aftermath of a wildfire.

☑️ Check whether your phone is working. It isn’t uncommon for phone lines and cell towers to be damaged or destroyed in a wildfire.

☑️ Ensure your security system and alarms are working. The same infrastructure that supports phone or electrical service also supports security systems. Damage from the fire may interrupt your service when you need it the most.

How to safely clean up fire damage

Take precautions to ensure your safety and reduce your risk of being exposed to hazardous materials and conditions when cleaning your property. Be sure to:

  • Wear protective glasses and a dust particulate mask. Before sifting through any debris, put on a mask and gently spray the area with water to avoid creating dust that you might breathe in.
  • Wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt to completely cover your limbs. Wearing thick denim outerwear provides some protection against sharp objects and toxic dust. 
  • Wear leather gloves or work gloves. These will protect you against sharp edges and materials that are potentially still hot.
  • Wear boots or other protective footwear that can’t be easily punctured or melted. Nails and sharp angles present serious risks. Steel toe boots help protect your feet from things that may fall on them.
  • Drink water to avoid dehydration. Water washes dust from your throat and keeps you hydrated. Do not drink tap water, as the fire may have caused contamination and could disrupt purification systems. 
  • Avoid stirring up ash. Using a leaf blower outside or vigorous sweeping and indoor cleaning sends dangerous particles into the air. Gently wet ash-covered surfaces and wipe clean.
  • Use a HEPA air purifier inside. Your HVAC may need professional cleaning, so do not turn it on until you know it is free from ash and debris. Use a filter to remove particles from the air that can irritate or injure your lungs.
How to safely clean up your property after fire damage.

How to clean smoke damage

Smoke permeates surfaces and is difficult to remove. These tips can get the job done and save the expense of removing and replacing damaged items and materials. 

  • Remove soot. Soot can be dangerous and hard to clean. To avoid damaging your vacuum and other cleaning tools, and to minimize exposure to toxins, a professional restorer with heavy-duty equipment is well worth the expense.
  • Ventilate. Get fresh air circulating as soon as you have removed ash and debris. It will clear out the smoke and can help wet materials dry faster, preventing mold. 
  • Wash walls. A cloth soaked in warm water with vinegar will remove much of the smell and can knock down some of the staining. You may need to prime and repaint your walls after they’re thoroughly dry.
  • Textile cleaning. Wash your clothing with vinegar—it may take several cycles. Send rugs and curtains out to professional cleaners. 
  • Wipe down appliances and electronics. Wiping appliances down using a vinegar solution or an enzymatic cleaner formulated to remove smoke can be effective.
  • Deep clean your HVAC. You may want to have a professional flush ducts and pipes to avoid spewing ash and fumes through your house. 
  • Clean out cabinets and appliances. Food can be damaged due to heat, smoke, and fire. Even cans may leak. Rather than take a risk, it’s safer to throw food away. You should also carefully dispose of medicines and household chemicals damaged by fire.

What to do with fire-damaged items

In many cases, materials may be too damaged to save or may be impossible to clean. Check with your local waste management department to determine the best way to dispose of fire-damaged items.

Inventory the belongings that are a total loss. Record their value and include a detailed description and several photos of each item. Advance preparation can be very helpful: gather receipts and photos of your valuables in advance of any fire so that information is ready, should disaster strike. This information will back up your wildfire insurance claims  and ensure you’re adequately compensated for your losses.

Dealing with stress and emotional trauma due to loss

If fire has burned down your house, you and your family are facing financial loss, loss of belongings and treasured keepsakes, as well as losing your place of comfort and refuge. Your dog may have lost their favorite bed. Your child may have lost a favorite toy. Your pictures, trophies, and family heirlooms may be gone. You’ll also have to deal with the disruption and red tape of finding a new place to live and going through insurance paperwork and processes.

How you and your family deal with it all will vary, from short-term grief or sleep disruption to post-traumatic stress disorder. Don’t neglect your emotional well-being at this time.

Many support organizations offer free counseling. Consider taking advantage of it, even if you feel like you’re handling it all well. Keep an eye on your children and other family members, in case they need more help. Even pets can benefit from therapy.

Rebuilding your home after a fire.

Do you have to rebuild your house if it burns down?

While some homeowners may want to rebuild their homes after a disaster, others may want to use this as an opportunity to relocate. Many people ask: If your house burns down, do you have to rebuild?

The short answer is no.

You can use your insurance payout to purchase a new home. Consider the cost of moving versus the costs of repairing or rebuilding after a fire. You’ll have the cost of debris removal, mold mitigation, rebuilding materials and labor, and re-landscaping, ideally to the latest fire codes. 

If your coverage is a replacement cost value policy, these expenses are probably covered. If you have an actual cash value policy, the cost of clean up may exceed the value of your policy, forcing you to pay out of pocket.

What happens to your mortgage if your house is destroyed?

While you can take your insurance payout and move to a new house, you still have to pay off your mortgage on the house that burned down. 

If you decide to rebuild, you’ll have to continue paying your mortgage while your home is under construction or renovation. Your insurance policy may cover your mortgage payments during this period.

If your house burns down do you still own the land?

Fire may destroy your home, but it doesn’t destroy your property rights. You still own your land after a wildfire. If you have a mortgage, you will still have to continue making payments. 

Where do you live if your house burns down?

In the immediate wildfire aftermath, you may be in a hotel, staying with friends, or in a shelter operated by the Red Cross or other community organization. These arrangements are temporary. Some organizations can help you find a more permanent situation. Many insurance policies cover the cost of renting a home while you sort out what you and your family will do next.

Resources for California residents impacted by wildfires

An array of government, charity, and religious organizations offer assistance to fire victims in California. In a large-scale wildfire, federal and local emergency managers coordinate the opening of emergency shelters, the provision of food and water, and the offering of other kinds of support. Attend public meetings and get involved with the disaster support network to know what’s happening and to make best use of available assistance. 

Flooding risks after wildfires

Fire and water go together during wildfires. With vegetation gone, soil is exposed to erosion and can be susceptible to mudslides. The heat of a fire hardens some soils almost like ceramic, so that it does not absorb rain water, which increases runoff and causes even more erosion. 

Streams can clog with debris. Firebreaks can divert the natural flow of water. Road drainage systems may be damaged. Downed trees, fences, pipes, power lines, and buildings can create more hazards that restrict the flow of water. Taken together, these factors increase the risk of damaging floods in California, making water dangers a companion to the heat and flames in wildfire disasters. 

CAL FIRE deploys Watershed Emergency Response Teams (WERTs) to assess flood risks, prepare mitigation and repair plans, coordinate agencies, help with securing funding, and assist in installing protective measures.  

Rebuilding after a wildfire in California

The Contractors’ State License Board (CSLB) verifies licensed contractors who can help you rebuild and also hosts a disaster help center. The California Department of Housing and Community Development offers an array of resources.

The recovery links below will connect you to federal FEMA programs, support from the State of California, and various aid and relief from community, religious, and charitable organizations that can help you after a wildfire:

Protect your home and family from future fire damage

If a wildfire burns down your house or damages your structure, you can repair and rebuild using fire-resistant materials and adopt defensible strategies to slow the spread of future wildfire with a buffer around your house. Protect your home from wildfire by installing a Frontline Wildfire Defense exterior sprinkler system. For more information, contact us today for a free consultation.