SPECIAL REPORT: Fire and smoke damage — safe cleanup guidance for FMs

by Brianna Crandall — November 28, 2018 — In the wake of recent wildfires that have damaged, destroyed and permeated hundreds of homes and businesses in California, FMLink has gathered resources and guidance to help facilities managers (FMs) safely deal with buildings affected by fire, smoke, char, ash and odors, whether caused by forest fires or other types of fires. Links are provided at the end of this article.

Type of fire

According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s “How to Clean Up Smoke and Soot from a Fire” document, before you start cleaning up after a fire, it is important to know what you are dealing with, as different types of fire require different cleaning techniques. Typically, high-oxygen fires result in dry, dusty soot, whereas slow-burning, low-oxygen fires result in greasy, wet deposits that smear easily, and ash from a forest fire has less-toxic properties than residue from a building fire.

Restoration & Remediation (R&R) magazine’s article “Don’t Skip Steps: Mastering Odor Removal during Smoke Damage Restoration” also points out that in cases where water is applied to extinguish the fire, the humidity in a building can typically rise up to 100 percent, causing any wood in the building to open its pores and absorb even more smoke and residue.

Safety first

The Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, Restoration and Certification (IICRC) warns that it is of first importance for FMs and building occupants to be aware of the many dangerous health effects caused by returning to fire-damaged, smoke-contaminated buildings. The R&R article specifically points out the toxicity of the air due to the burning of items such as plastics, leathers, upholstery, paint and other synthetic materials and chemicals if the building itself had fire damage.

Pete Duncanson, chairman of the IICRC, stressed:

Once officials determine it is safe to return to a home or business after a wildfire, it’s important for property owners to assess physical damage impacting structures before cleaning up heat, char, ash and smoke-odor impacted buildings. It’s imperative that fire and smoke odor cleanup be performed correctly and safely to stave off any ill health effects and permanent property damage.

IICRC advises FMs involved in cleanup to wear an N-95 ANSI-approved dust mask (like a painter’s mask) and work gloves during cleanup, and to ventilate the area well. The group says to open windows if possible and place a box fan in an open window to draw smoke-odor laden air and char out of the building, and to replace ventilation filters as soon as possible, then run the ventilation system to filter out smoke-related particles.

IICRC notes that long-sleeved shirts and long pants should be worn to perform cleaning activities, and the ash should be washed from skin as quickly as possible to avoid irritation. The group points out that even though ash from wildfires themselves consists mainly of non-toxic wood such as that found in a fireplace, it can irritate the nose and throat and may cause coughing, and it can trigger asthmatic attacks in people who already have asthma.

Potential dangers resulting from fires

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) “Worker Safety During Fire Cleanup” fact sheet adds important guidance on electrical hazards, carbon monoxide poisoning, musculoskeletal hazards, extreme heat and cold, unstable structures, hazardous materials, working in confined spaces, respiratory hazards and more.

 Highlights from the CDC’s list of dangers to watch out for include:

  • Stay away from downed power lines, which can conduct electricity though the nearby ground, smoke particles or water.
  • Turn off power at the main breaker or fuse of the service panel, and do not turn back on until electrical equipment is inspected and qualified.
  • Do not use electrical equipment that has been exposed to heat from fire until checked by an electrician.
  • Never operate gasoline-powered equipment indoors; it is nearly impossible to tell whether there is enough ventilation or if deadly carbon monoxide is in the air.
  • Avoid back injuries when lifting or moving objects by hand; use teams of two or more to move bulky objects, and automated lifting devices for heavier objects.
  • Do no work around any fire-damaged structure until it is examined and certified safe for work by a registered engineer or architect.
  • Leave the structure immediately if it shifts or unusual noises signal a possible collapse.
  • Never enter a confined space unless you have been properly trained, as many toxic gases and vapors cannot be seen or smelled.

Timing is important

The R&R article stresses the importance of beginning the cleanup process as soon as possible in order to minimize damage to the property. It cites IICRC figures as to the continuing process of deterioration of materials, such as highly porous materials (marble, alabaster) discoloring permanently within minutes, whereas it may take days for the acid residues to cause vinyl flooring to require refinishing or replacement, and to cause painted walls to yellow permanently.

Cleanup process


IICRC says to clean the exterior of the building from fire-damaged debris, smoke and char particles. Exterior cleaning includes washing off the building, sidewalks, driveways and decks with detergent and fresh water scrubbing followed by rinsing.

Specific to wildfires, the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District’s “Safe Ash Clean-Up During and After a Fire” page points out the need to protect storm drains from ash and cleaning chemicals, and if washing roof areas, to redirect downspouts to landscaped areas to capture the ash.


L.A. County notes that ventilation of the area affected by the fire and removal of debris are effective first steps to clean up after any type of fire. The County advises using “triage assessments” to clean or remove all contents as quickly as possible and in order of value, as well as installing dehumidifiers to control moisture in the air (relative humidity), especially where water was used to extinguish the fire.

IICRC says to clean the interior by dry HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) vacuuming the ceiling, then the upper and lower walls, and then the flooring. In some situations, detergent wet cleaning must be applied to remove a smoke film that impacts and absorbs onto surfaces.

Specifically for wildfires, the Santa Barbara District says to “remember these three C’s: CONTROL – CONTAIN – CAPTURE.” The District elaborates by advising not to use leaf blowers to clean up ash, only vacuums with HEPA filters, and to sweep gently with a push broom, then mop with a damp cloth or hose lightly with water, then dispose of ash in plastic bags in the regular trash.


As to specific hard surfaces, L.A. County advises to:

  • Metal: Wipe all metallic finishes with cooking oil to prevent rust and staining.
  • Plastic, PVC, paint: Clean plastic or surfaces such as PVC windows and white painted surfaces using a mild alkali detergent to remove possible acidic soot, which may activate with moisture in the air (humidity) and cause permanent staining.
  • Stained surfaces: Where surface staining cannot be removed, consider the use of specialist paint to obliterate the stain and anti-bleed characteristics. Typically, these paints are lacquers or oil-based.
Soft materials

For materials such as upholstery and draperies, IICRC advises to:

  • Upholstery: Vacuum contents; make sure the vacuum is HEPA rated, otherwise, you risk blowing smoke and soot into the air.
  • Draperies, clothing and machine-washable items such as towels: These may be dry cleaned or laundered.
  • Other: Unless the upholstery manufacturer says otherwise, use a mild alkaline cleaner to neutralize acid in smoke, soot, char and ash.
Repair vs. replace; Odor removal

The R&R article delineates the important process of thoroughly removing odors from the building, starting with removing the sources of odor as soon as possible, including any items considered a total loss or that are going to be cleaned and deodorized offsite. The article explains how to tell whether various building components are salvageable or damaged beyond repair, including framing, drywall, tile, carpet, laminate floors, wood floors and insulation.

R&R then says to clean everything remaining, usually with a wet sponge for hard, porous materials and a dry sponge for hard, less porous materials. The article strongly advises using an odor counteractant — the author’s company uses both a thermal fogger and an ozone treatment — and to seal any salvageable surfaces that were scorched but are not being removed.

L.A. County notes that deodorants should not be used since they mask odors, which can serve as a significant indicator of health concerns.

Hire a professional when needed

When smoke and soot damage and residue is moderate or heavy, or you cannot complete smoke and soot odor removal on your own, consider hiring a professional who is certified in fire and smoke damage restoration to cleanup and restore your building, advises IICRC.

IICRC offers these tips:

  • For a wildfire, check with your insurance provider to determine if smoke damage from outdoor sources is covered under your policy. Insurance companies can often provide a list of credible restoration companies from which property owners can choose.
  • If the fire has warped or distorted the structure, consult a general contractor who can also be found in the IICRC list of approved restorers.
  • When hiring a fire and smoke removal professional in your area, make sure that the technician is a certified Fire and Smoke Restoration Technician (FSRT) to ensure they are educated on the latest techniques for proper remediation.
  • In some cases, a mold remediator may also be necessary, as the volume of water used to combat fires can result in an abundance of standing water within a property, leading to mold growth.

To find a trained and certified restoration professional in your area or to confirm the certification of any company that has contacted you, visit the IICRC website.

Resources (including those mentioned above):