You can make an impact in recovery efforts
Rather than shy away from the chemical, biological, and other toxic dangers posed by wildfires, we are ready to confront them. Let's reduce the risks to our family, friends, coworkers, pets, and other community members by urging state governors to launch or strengthen public awareness campaigns on urban wildfire cleanup hazards.
Send a letter to your governor, urging them to protect families, workers, pets, and communities during wildfire recovery efforts.
After the fire is over, deadly hazards remain
The lasting threats to communities occur during the cleanup and recovery phase, when cleanup, demolition and construction workers take on hazardous tasks and families begin returning to their homes. If they are lucky enough to have their home intact, hidden hazards may exist within the walls of their homes from the impact of the toxic smoke.
Thousands of people in multiple states are impacted both directly and indirectly by wildfires, forest fires, brush fires, and now unprecedented urban wildfires that engulf entire neighborhoods. Even those hundreds of miles away from a burn zone may be at risk as equipment and materials that were in these environments are transported to other areas for service, repair and decontamination.
It is important that residents returning home to pick up their lives have their property tested and evaluated by a certified professional to make sure it is completely safe, through sampling and data interpretation, to begin recovery efforts.
U.S. wildfire statistics and information
A burning impact that lasts
A wildfire's impact to property, public health, and the environment can expand several hundred miles from the actual burn zone. Property loss due to extreme heat damage can directly affect properties adjacent to the wilderness. Even worse, communities several hundred miles downwind from the fire may also be consequentially affected as combustion particles are lofted high into the air by the fires extreme heat then driven great distances by prevailing winds. Feather-light ash produced by the intense heat of combustion and other smoke constituents including solid particles, liquids, aerosols, and gases can exist in the atmosphere for variable periods of time and continue to deposit long after the fire has been extinguished. The broad distribution capabilities and impacts of combustion byproducts and emissions produced by wildfires can result in widespread public exposure to potentially toxic materials.
Wildfire particles can both migrate and infiltrate into the built environment through open doors and windows, on shoes and clothing, through the ventilation system and unperceived gaps in the building envelope. Studies have shown, penetration rates can be highly influenced by building characteristics, meteorology, and particle size/composition. Settled combustion particles on building surfaces or personal property can emit volatile materials which may be the source of persistent odors and/or result in an alteration in appearance or value.
Resources for safe fire recovery
Before you begin - the Incident Command System (ICS)
When there is an incident, such as a natural or man-made disaster, an Incident Command System (ICS) is typically established for response command, control, and coordination. ICS is a nationally-recognized framework under which all involved or interested entities and stakeholders (whether federal, tribal, state, local, or private) operate. It establishes one command structure with known and scheduled deliverables and uses standardized terminology.
Because the ICS is mandated for disaster response agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), it is important to note that the ICS may be in place and active in your area, even if the response phase is over and the recovery phase has begun. It is often best to start by performing a search on an internet search browser for "ICS Liaison" and the name of the event or location to see if the ICS has a website set up. If this does not yield an established website for your response, go to www.disasterassistance.gov and enter the address of the affected property.
If the area inclusive of the address entered has been declared for individual assistance, you can try "Find Assistance" and then "Apply Online" if applicable. If you do not have access to the internet, you may contact FEMA directly:
- Call 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET, 7 days a week:
- 1-800-621-FEMA (1-800-621-3362)
- TTY 1-800-462-7585
- 711 or VRS 1-800-621-3362
- You can also email: FEMA-ContactUs@fema.dhs.gov (get a response in 1 to 2 business days) or write to:
P.O. Box 10055
Hyattsville, MD 20782-8055
This step is important because the incident command may be able to provide invaluable data about what is happening as well as additional resources before you attempt to return to or enter your home or business.
During a wildfire
During a wildfire event, keep all windows and doors in your home closed. If heating or cooling of the air is needed, ensure the ventilation system is turned on in recirculation mode (with outside air dampers closed) in order to filter the air. However, the advice is different for commercial buildings. The ventilation system operators should close or limit outdoor air intake to balance the need for fresh air with the hazards of entrained smoke. Portable air cleaners, such as those with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) or electrostatic filters, may also help reduce particulate levels in both homes and offices. The Red Cross provides an excellent checklist for preparing for wildfires at:
- American Red Cross
Wild Fire Safety Checklist
Inspection prior to re-occupancy
Once the threat of fire has passed, local authorities will open fire-impacted areas for property access. Inspect the property and exterior of structures to ensure that there are no active fires, smoke, or hidden embers. Pay particular attention to attics, roofs, and outbuildings. If you see fire or smoke, immediately contact local authorities. Also, inspect the property for heavily damaged trees. Trees or damaged limbs may fall onto people or structures. If you have questions about the safety of a tree, contact a local arborist or tree-removal firm. Inspect the exterior electrical power lines leading to the structure. If power lines appear damaged, contact your local electrical utility provider. Check for the smell of natural gas or propane. If you smell gas, leave the door open and exit the structure. Do not go inside a structure that has a gas odor. Turn off the gas supply if it is located outside, and contact your utility provider. Prior to entering any structure, the exterior should be inspected for structural fire damage. Fire damaged may compromise the structural integrity of roofs, walls, and foundations. Visible movement or sagging of the structure suggests serious damage. Evaluation by a qualified engineer or building official may be warranted prior to entry.
Do not enter the structure without respiratory protection if strong or irritant smoke odor is noticeable. The minimum recommended respiratory protection is a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certified N-95 filtering face piece (dust mask), or a half-face air purifying respirator with combination particulate and organic vapor cartridges, if volatile organic vapors are present or suspected. The risk of adverse health effects from inhaling smoke particulates or vapors depends on the concentration of airborne chemicals and duration of exposure. Sensitive individuals will be at a higher risk of experiencing adverse health effects.
Individuals that are considered part of sensitive populations are generally those in the following groups:
- Infants and young children, due to under-developed respiratory systems and immune systems
- Children (though while generally considered healthy, they have increased time outdoors and increased activity levels, i.e., faster breathing rate)
- Individuals with chronic or preexisting respiratory medical conditions including, but it is not limited to asthma, chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD), emphysema or chronic bronchitis
- Individuals with other cardio-vascular or other vascular conditions including, but not limited to high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, or cerebrovascular conditions, such as atherosclerosis
- Pregnant women
- The elderly
- Those with immunocompromised conditions
- Other individuals with infections at the time of exposure
- Smokers and former smokers
There are buildings and settings where sensitive populations are present that should have special consideration if impacted by wildfire smoke. These include, but are not limited to:
- Daycare centers
- Nursing homes and assisted living units
- Senior centers
Useful resources on wildfire smoke, including a discussion of the use of respirators, is found at:
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials
- New Mexico Department of Health
Tips: Returning Home After a Wildfire
Re-occupancy after a wildfire
Be sure a clean water supply, electricity, and emergency medical services are restored, reliable, and readily accessible.
The fires may have deposited large amounts of ash that might contain hazardous or corrosive materials. Do not allow children in areas with visible ash accumulation that are not yet cleaned.
After the fire event, replace all air conditioning filters with higher filtration rated filters for at least a few weeks to remove entrained fire residue from the air and ductwork. Duct cleaning or replacement may also be required if a visible layer of fire residue remains. Consult a duct cleaning company for advice.
If using gasoline or diesel powered pumps, generators, or pressure washers, be sure to operate these machines only in well-ventilated areas to prevent exposure to carbon monoxide.
Restoration after a wildfire
Conduct an initial assessment to gauge the time commitment and resources needed to sort and clean affected materials. This initial assessment will help determine if professional services are needed. Consider that corrosive residues from fires will continue to damage susceptible materials, and items impacted by water will need to be dried. Professional cleaning services or professional fire or smoke remediation contractors can assist with heavy residues, non-washable fabrics, upholstery, furniture, area rugs, wall-to-wall carpeting, and other items that may be difficult to clean at home due to their size or because they require specialized cleaning equipment.
Several guidelines are available on cleaning and restoration after a fire as follows:
- University of Missouri Extension
After the Fire is Out: Cleaning Household Textiles and Clothing
- Los Angeles County Department of Public Health
How to Clean Up Smoke and Soot from a Fire
Technical guidance for the industrial hygienist includes:
- Restoration Industry Association
Guidelines for Fire and Smoke Damage Repair, 2nd ed., 2007
- BC Centre for Disease Control Environmental Health Services
Evidence Review: Wildfire Smoke and Public Health Risk
- State of Washington Department of Ecology Air Quality Program
How Wood Smoke Harms your Health
- Kovar, B., M.L. King, P. Chakravarty and M. Larrañaga: “Suggested guidelines for wildfire smoke damage and remediation.” Journal of Cleaning, Restoration and Inspection (IICRC), 2: 42-32 (2015).
General response resources
General disaster relief assistance information is available on these websites: