The sound of a smoke alarm can strike terror into even the bravest person’s heart. Though it can give the warning you need to escape a disaster, it also heralds a potentially deadly situation. Fire departments in the United States respond to a fire every 23 seconds on average. In 2015, about nine lives were lost every day due to fires. Even the home fires that don’t result in any injuries can leave thousands of dollars of damage behind.
Though most people know the basic steps to take for fire preparedness, few probably realize how difficult it can be to recover from a house fire. Stacker researched official recommendations from the U.S. Fire Administration, the Red Cross, and other experts to compile this list of 17 steps you should take after a fire. If a fire does start in your home, take care of yourself, your loved ones and your pets first—you can worry about your property and belongings once everyone is safe and the fire is out. Read on for tips about filing an insurance claim, cleaning up damaged property, and rebuilding after a fire.
As you smell smoke, hear your smoke alarm or see flames, evacuate the building and call 911. A quick response from the fire department can potentially save your home or your life.
If you or a loved one has been burned, cool and cover burns with a cold wet compress or clean cloth as soon as possible. Take anyone who is hurt to the hospital immediately to prevent further injury. That includes your pets or livestock: If they were burned or injured in the fire, they need veterinary treatment ASAP.
Call your family and friends as soon as you can to let them know what happened and that you’re safe. You don’t want them to worry unnecessarily.
Just because the flames have been extinguished doesn’t mean it’s safe to re-enter your home. Wait until local authorities give you the OK to go back inside and check out the damage. If the structural integrity has been weakened by the fire, you could be putting yourself back in harm’s way.
If your home is damaged enough that you need to live somewhere else for a while, you’ll want to lock it up before you leave. Bad weather, vandals and thieves can cause further damage to your property. Remove all remaining valuables from the property, cover any openings created by the fire and lock all the doors before you leave. You can also call your local police department to let them know that the home will be sitting empty until it can be repaired.
If you rent your home, let your landlord know about the fire and any damage to his or her property as soon as possible.
You’ll want to get in touch with your insurance company right away to find out what you need to do to file a claim ASAP. They might have you make a list of everything that was damaged in the fire or take photos of the damage to your property. You can also ask for an advance against your claim to help pay for supplies you need right away.
When you hear your smoke alarm beeping, you don’t want to waste any time grabbing your belongings: Just get out of the building as quickly as possible. That means that many important documents might be damaged in a fire. Contact the appropriate agencies and companies to replace your driver’s license, car registration, insurance policies, passports, birth certificate, Social Security card, credit cards, titles to deeds, medical records, income tax papers, and any other important documents that were lost in the fire.
If you have to pay out of pocket for lodging, supplies and other necessities, save your receipts: These costs may be covered by your insurance company. You might also need them to write off the losses on your taxes.
Before you go inside your home after a fire, inspect the exterior for signs of structural damage. Keep an eye out for loose power lines, cracks in the foundation, broken walls, missing support beams and other damage. It’s best to ask a contractor or building inspector to formally inspect your home before you re-enter it after a fire.
Next, inspect your utilities to make sure they still work. If you smell gas, leave the property immediately and call the fire department. If you see sparks, spot broken or fraying wires or smell hot insulation, turn the electricity off at the circuit breaker. Pick up the telephone to see if the lines are still working. Refrain from using the sinks, showers or toilets if you suspect your sewer or water lines may be broken. Call in electricians, plumbers and contractors to help repair any broken lines or pipes.
Once you’ve dealt with the major damage, it’s time to start cleaning out your ruined property. Throw away any food, beverages, or medicine that were exposed to heat, smoke or soot. Wipe down walls, floors and furniture with mild detergent or a solution of trisodium phosphate and water to remove smoke and soot. Wash all pots, pans and other kitchen utensils thoroughly. Wipe down leather goods with a damp cloth, dry them, then use saddle soap to remove any lingering dirt or soot. Remember not to throw out anything until you’ve taken an inventory, though: You will most likely need this to file an insurance claim.
Protect yourself from a future fire by installing new hard-wired, interconnected smoke alarms with battery back-ups on every floor as well as inside and outside each bedroom. By hard-wiring them together, you’ll ensure that they will all sound if one is triggered.
If you can’t return to your home within a few days of the fire, find somewhere else to stay and notify important parties of your new address. Your family, friends, insurance company, employer, and landlord should all know where to reach you in case of emergency.
No matter how busy you are, make time to take care of your emotional health after a disaster. Common reactions to a traumatic event include physical exhaustion, inability to make decisions, arguments with loved ones, changes in appetite, and loss of sleep. Take care of yourself emotionally and physically by eating healthy, getting enough rest, remaining patient with yourself and reaching out for help when you need it. The Red Cross Disaster Distress Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day if you need to talk to someone.