U.S. wildfire statistics and information
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 their homes' walls from the impact of the toxic smoke.
Thousands of people in multiple states are impacted 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 in these environments are transported to other areas for service, repair, and decontamination.
Residents returning home to pick up their lives must have their property tested and evaluated by a certified professional to ensure it is completely safe, through sampling and data interpretation, to begin recovery efforts.
Protect yourself and your community after a fire event
Fires don’t just destroy property; they also leave behind a terrible sense of devastation and loss and create additional hazards that can cause lasting harm.
As families return to their homes, it is important that they have their property tested and evaluated by a certified professional to make sure it is completely safe.
A burning impact that lasts
A wildfire's impact on 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 fire's 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.
Ways you can volunteer for disaster preparedness
- Mentor youth on preparedness.
- Talk with your neighbors about preparedness plans and encourage them to create a plan, or review, and update their plan if they already have one.
- Join a local Community Emergency Response Team.
- Participate in online training, such as "You Are the Help Until Help Arrives."
Resources for safe fire recovery
Before you begin - the Incident Command System (ICS)
When there is an incident, such as a natural or human-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 affected property address.
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 provide invaluable data about what is happening and 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) 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 entrained smoke hazards. Portable air cleaners, such as those with High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) or electrostatic filters, may also help reduce particulate levels in homes and offices. The Red Cross provides an excellent checklist for preparing for wildfires at:
- American Red Cross
Wildfire 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 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. Before entering any structure, an expert should inspect the exterior 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 before entry.
Do not enter the structure without respiratory protection if a 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 facepiece (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 airborne chemicals' concentration 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 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. Your property may also require duct cleaning or replacement 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 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:
Wildfire Impact Assessments for the OEHS professionals
Wildfire impact assessments are complex by nature and can involve the investigator, property owner, laboratory, and insurance company adjuster. The OEHS professional conducting a wildfire impact investigation must define its purpose and objectives and develop a working hypothesis to drive all assessment phases from initial inspection to sampling, analysis, and data interpretation.
Properly documenting the extent and impact helps to evaluate a range of reasonable options for restoration to return the structure and the indoor environment as close as possible to its pre-wildfire condition while also protecting the health and safety of restoration workers and returning occupants.
The Technical Guide for Wildfire Impact Assessments for the OEHS Professional will help OEHS professionals conduct defensible wildfire impact assessments and evaluate restoration options to promote a safe and healthy indoor environment.