How Can Fire And Smoke Damage Affect Your Home?

Fire Damaged Homes

In a matter of minutes, even the most prepared homeowner can be faced with a crisis.  Although fire and the harm it inflicts can be a life-changing event, understanding the threats and steps to take after disaster strikes can help get families back in their homes more quickly.

Unless they have prior firsthand experience, most property owners don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the threat of fire in their home.  Yet even the most prepared homeowner can find themselves facing an unexpected catastrophe very quickly.  In as little two minutes, a small fire can turn from a nuisance into a life-threatening blaze, and in just five minutes can engulf an entire home.

While house-destroying fires do occasionally originate outside the home (such as wildfires, embers blown from another house fire or arson), most home fires start within the residence and are caused by accident.

Common Sources of Home Fire:

  • Cooking equipment malfunctions, food items left unattended while being prepared and other human errors in handling, installing or operating devices in the kitchen
  • Heaters, boilers and furnaces that aren’t properly maintained, are overstressed, incorrectly installed, not kept up to code or not regularly serviced (space heaters are a particular cause for concern if not used correctly
  • Improper disposal of cigarettes or other smoking paraphernalia
  • Candles burning unattended
  • Electrical wiring that is incorrectly installed or malfunctioning
  • Lithium batteries sparking, overheating or combusting
  • Faulty, degraded or overstressed extension cords.
  • Inadequately stored chemicals, natural gas cannisters or accelerant-soaked rags

How Fire Damages a Home

No matter how a fire starts, it is truly a heartbreaking situation to lose your home and your possessions.  When a home is damaged in a fire, it is not just the blaze that is problematic.  Soot, smoke and the damage from fire-combating water can further destroy belongings and keepsakes.

Smoke Damage

After the fire, the danger doesn’t stop once the flames have been extinguished.  In fact, without swift action, that’s when the harm can really start.

Beyond the aesthetic damage it causes, smoke can be a major detriment after a home fire.  Even if the fire is confined to a small area, smoke has a way of getting into every nook and cranny of a house.  It easily gets behind electrical outlets, inside refrigerators, into porous fabrics, upholstery and clothing and, if left untreated long enough, can be very difficult to remove without professional care.

Smoke can carry dangerous carcinogens from melted plastics, burned wood, scorched upholstery and unabated asbestos.  The wood within the structure of most homes is particularly prone to trapping odours and toxins, which can be nearly impossible to eradicate without a professional smoke damage restoration team.  And just as residual toxins from embedded smoke can be inhaled, they can also be absorbed through bare skin when touching smoke- and soot-damaged items.

Water Damage

The water used by the fire department to extinguish a fire can lead to a host of its own problems, as it can take firefighters a significant amount of water to put out an inferno.  Not only can it soak rugs, carpets, furniture and upholstery, it can also penetrate floorboards and other building structures.

When this water is left unattended or not properly dried, mould can begin to develop in damp structures, leading to headaches, nausea and respiratory problems for residents if not treated.  If mould begins to grow in earnest, it can be very difficult to remove and, more often than not, is impossible for anyone but a properly trained and equipped team to remove.

Soot Damage

Soot, a product of carbon being released when wood, plastic or other combustible elements are burned, can not only be visually unpleasant, it can leave a home with a nasty odour and the potential for health problems for the occupants.

If a blaze raises the temperature of a home enough, the extreme heat will push soot deep into the recesses of drywall, insulation, plastics and wood.  Within minutes, it can begin to penetrate appliances, upholstery and furniture, and soon thereafter marble, grout, fiberglass and countertops.

When water is sprayed on objects that are coated in soot, it gives the soot an oily stickiness, increasing the urgency to remove it.  If left unattended a few days, this oily soot can rust metals (if not completely corrode them) ruin vinyl flooring and render walls unrepairable.  Let soot sit for a few weeks and carpeting, glass, china, crystal and silver may be ruined.  Any longer than that and plumbing and electrical systems are all but unsalvageable.

How to Protect a Home From Fire and Smoke Damage

So what can homeowners do to prepare their property and ensure their families are protected?  To minimize further damage and ensure a quicker recovery, they should keep a few things in mind.

Smoke Detectors

Who hasn’t taken apart a beeping smoke detector in the middle of the night when the battery has gone bad?  As annoying as that incessant beeping can be, this practice can be life-threatening under the worst circumstances.

Fully functioning smoke alarms are one of the easiest and cheapest ways of providing occupants a warning when smoke is present in a home.  Biannual checks of these home smoke alarms and their batteries serve both as a lifesaving tactic and as an excellent deterrent to this middle of the night annoyance.

Fire Extinguishers

Particularly with kitchen fires accelerated by cooking oil or grease, in as little as 30 seconds an overcooked dish can descend from a ruined meal to a ruined home.  Keeping easily accessible fire extinguishers available can make all the difference between these two scenarios.

It is important that everyone in the home know where the extinguishers are located and how to correctly use them.  In the heat of the moment, not having to scramble to find a fire extinguisher can be the difference between life and death.  While there are many different types of fire extinguishers, and each has its own merits, the fact of the matter is any fire extinguisher is better than no fire extinguisher.

Fire Safety Plan

Fire evacuation plans are essential for all families and an easy way to save lives.  Knowing (and practising) a fire escape plan for how occupants will exit a home, or at least find safety until the fire department arrives, is a very simple way of preparing for the unexpected.

Keeping stairways, outside fire escapes and any other exit points free of obstruction is an absolutely essential component of any home safety plan.  This includes clearing bikes, plants, boxes, trash and other debris that commonly accumulate in hallways, stairwells and in front of exits.

Mobile Homes

Among the property owners who do actively think about the threat of fire, mobile home owners probably make up the majority.  Mobile home fire safety has long been a concern, and continues to be for a variety of reasons.

Mobile homes are typically built with lighter materials than brick-and-mortar structures, making them more flammable and quicker to burn.  While national mobile-home safety laws have existed in Canada since the 1990s, provincial and local laws vary as to what alterations are required for older mobile homes.  For their own safety, owners should take steps to fireproof their property, regardless of when it was built.

Despite there being strict laws on the books, many “do-it-yourself” homeowners make additions that violate building safety codes.  The resulting structures may contain walls in unsafe places, rooms with only a single exit, or overstressed electrical wiring.  The increased risk of dangerous malfunctions can easily be avoided by hiring professionals.  Always use an electrician to repair wiring or do other electrical work, and a contractor to fabricate any structural modifications.

As natural gas, particularly propane, is often used as a cost-effective way to heat mobile homes, mobile-home owners face a unique risk that other homeowners usually do not.  Even the smallest of gas leaks or mismeasured pressure in a natural gas tank can lead to a catastrophic result.  Because of this risk, natural gas tanks and lines are subjected to strict standards and safety codes in Canada, but failure to test for leaks and proper pressure is still unfortunately common.

Ensuring that the tank is off the ground and a safe distance from the mobile home and that the area around it is clean of debris and anything else flammable is a good first step in fire safety.  This includes trash, lawn debris, tires and anything else combustible that would be quick to ignite by a spark and a malfunctioning tank.

The biggest concern for mobile home occupants is the lack of multiple exits.  Mobile homes commonly only have a single point of entry and exit, so it is imperative that a fire evacuation plan is established and practised.  By coupling this plan with actively maintained fire extinguishers and smoke alarms, mobile-home owners should be able to respond to a fire at a moment’s notice.

That being said, the steps for maintaining mobile-home safety don’t differ all that much from the steps a brick-and-mortar homeowner should abide by:

  • Pay full attention when cooking and ensure all kitchen devices are properly operated.
  • Only use space heaters, kerosine lamps and candles under close observation.
  • Don’t smoke indoors!
  • Maintain electrical wiring and leave any repairs to the professionals.
  • Ensure extension cords are sufficient for their intended purpose.
  • Do twice-yearly checks of smoke alarms and their batteries.
  • Have easy access to a fire extinguisher, particularly in the kitchen.
  • Keep exit points clear and devise a backup evacuation plan should an exit be blocked.
  • Make sure the area around the home is free of debris and clutter.

What to Expect After a Fire

Depending on the circumstances, the fire department may not allow a homeowner to enter a building or begin any cleanup work until it has received an official sign-off from the local authorities, a fire investigator and/or an insurance company.  Once they are allowed to enter, homeowners need to act quickly to prevent further home damage and minimize any health and safety dangers.  Delayed action, or worse, the wrong action, can unnecessarily hinder recovery and can increase both damage and cost.

Who to Call

After the fire has been extinguished, call the broker that holds the home’s insurance policy before anyone else!  The insurance company makes all decisions regarding coverage and limitations of a policy.  It will assign an individual (the adjuster) to review the claim and determine if further inspection is needed.  While most adjusters will authorize a certified restoration professional to perform emergency work before obtaining estimates, it is always prudent to consult with the broker BEFORE any work is done.

When the insurer has been notified, contact a licensed fire damage home restoration team right away!  It is important that individuals with the proper experience and expertise are brought in to evaluate the loss as soon as possible.  Restoration contractors are specially trained and certified technicians/tradespersons who specialize in restoring damaged homes and property.  First Onsite works with all insurance companies to get the process started quickly and things back to normal as soon as possible.

A Word of Warning

The fire damage restoration process can face any number of obstacles and the severity of a job can fluctuate rapidly.  It is critical NOT to accept any amount offered by the insurance company without consulting with the restoration team first.  It’s always best to take the insurance check after the project is complete to be sure that the reimbursement amount is sufficient.  At the least, wait until the restoration team has provided an estimate so you can minimize extraneous out-of-pocket costs.

And as a general rule, remember to read all paperwork thoroughly before signing!

What Happens Next?

Upon getting the call, First Onsite will dispatch an emergency response crew to the site.  Typically, the mitigation team will enter the least affected parts of the home first and partition off those areas to begin the recovery process.  They’ll work their way through the house from there, with the most severely affected areas restored last.  The goal of any restoration company is to get people back into their property safely and as soon as possible.

Mitigation, Remediation and Stabilization

The first thing the restoration team will determine is the safety and habitability of the home.  We’ll often bring in an industrial hygienist and other professionals to determine:

  • Structural damage that could make the building unstable
  • Presence of mould, asbestos, carcinogens and smoke-borne toxins
  • Degree to which the fire, water or any other secondary damage penetrated the structure
  • Habitability of unaffected areas of the home

Once these health and safety issues have been assessed, we can determine whether the home needs to be vacated or is still inhabitable.  If mould, asbestos, soot or other hazards are detected, or if the structure itself is wet, First Onsite will immediately begin remediation to prevent further harm. The restoration team will create a containment area to help isolate the damage and prevent it from spreading to the rest of the home.

Determining Scope of Work and Preparing an Estimate

Once the situation has been stabilized, First Onsite begins the process of evaluating the damage and determining what repairs are needed.  We’ll prepare a detailed Scope of Work, listing what will be required to restore the home to its pre-loss state.  From there, an estimate will be drafted and presented to the homeowner and insurance company.

In preparing this estimate, we’ll examine the building’s structure and contents to determine the severity of the damage and make an assessment as to what is restorable.  While we often are able to use state-of-the-art equipment and techniques to successfully recover precious belongings to their “like-new” condition, some items may be unsalvageable.  Items that are non-restorable are catalogued for the insurance company for replacement.

Restoring a Home to Its Pre-Loss State

Once the insurance company has given its authorization, First Onsite gets to work!  Using specialized equipment and advanced techniques, our teams can salvage even the most severe home damage.

There are many good building contractors and many good cleaning companies, but very few combine both of these trades.  First Onsite staffs a crew of skilled electricians, plumbers, carpenters, drywallers, appliance technicians and more.  When a project is in need of a particular craftsperson, we’ve cultivated a large roster of local subcontractors we can bring in for that special touch.  We ensure that everyone working on the job is certified in their field of restorative expertise through the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification, and we are often able to restore items that many other restorers would consider irreversibly ruined.

We maintain large, climate-controlled warehouses especially for sanitizing and storage, and employ a staff of qualified water, mould, smoke and fire remediation technicians.  Our cleaning specialists have received extensive training in drying procedures, proper treatment of smoke-damaged goods, correct sanitizing techniques, and the packing and handling of precious belongings.  Contents that are cleaned and restored in our facility are safely packaged and stored until the home repairs are finished.  When the project is complete, everything will be returned to its pre-loss state, or better!

First Onsite is the trusted, full-service fire restoration and reconstruction company, serving North America and beyond.  We partner with property owners both to prepare for the threat of catastrophe and to react after disaster strikes.  Our team is backed by national resources, and we scale to meet the needs of a property, regardless of size.  Although fire and the harm it inflicts can be a life-changing event, understanding the threats and steps to take after disaster strikes can help getting families back in their homes more quickly.

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