You know how to prepare for a wildfire, but what about returning home after being evacuated? The danger isn’t over after the fire passes. Flash flooding and debris flows, structural damage, road instability, and damaged trees are just some of the dangers that still exist after a wildfire.
Firefighters and utility workers begin restoring fire damaged areas as soon as they can, but making the area safe for the public again can take multiple days. Homeowners should stay out of the evacuation area until fire officials say it’s safe to return. It’s extremely important to be aware of the hazards and know what to look for when the evacuation order is lifted.
Here’s some safety steps to take after returning home from a wildfire evacuation, and determining whether your house is in livable condition or if you need to file a claim with your insurance company and obtain temporary housing.
Return home during daylight hours. Be aware that wildfires leave behind a lot of smoke and ash in the air that can cause eye, nose, skin, and throat irritation which can cause coughing and other health effects. Children and people with asthma, COPD, heart disease, or who are pregnant are especially at risk for inhaling smoke and ash. Limit how much ash you breathe in by wearing an N95 respirator.
Before inspecting your home, first check for the smell of gas, which has a distinctive “rotten egg” odor. Turn off power until you’ve completed your inspection. If you or someone else shut off the gas during the evacuation, don’t turn it back on! Contact your gas company or another qualified professional to perform a safety inspection before the gas service is restored and gas appliance pilots are re-lit.
Unplug or turn off all electric appliances to avoid overloading circuits and fire hazards when power is restored. Simply leave a single lamp on to alert you when power returns. Turn your appliances back on one at a time when conditions return to normal. Then check for damaged household electrical wiring and turn off the power at the main electric switch if you suspect any damage and consult with an electrician.
Don’t drink or use water from the faucets in your home until emergency officials say it is okay; water supply systems can be damaged and become polluted during wildfires or as a result of subsequent post-fire flooding. Rely on bottled water during this time. As for food, discard any that’s been exposed to heat, smoke, flood waters, or soot. Food that was in the freezer can be used if it still has ice crystals on it. If not, discard it.
Animals fleeing for safety from the wildfire may have taken refuge in your home. As you inspect your home with a battery-powered flashlight, speak loudly and make tapping noises with a stick to give notice that you are there. If you find a rodent, coyote, snake, or other animal who won’t willing evict the premises, contact the SPCA.
During clean up, protect yourself against ash by wearing gloves, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and shoes and socks to protect your skin. Wear goggles to protect your eyes. Wash off any ash that gets on your skin or in your eyes or mouth as soon as you can.
Determine if the house is in livable condition. Check for structural damage, unstable flooring, loose or dangling power lines near your home, water damage, etc. Here’s an extensive checklist from the American Red Cross.
To file a homeowners’ claim, contact your insurance provider. If your insurance adjuster determines you need temporary housing, they will contact a temporary housing provider like ALE Solutions, the largest temporary housing provider for displaced families. Learn more of what ALE Solutions has to offer here.