The days, weeks, and months following a wildfire may be very difficult, depending upon your loss. For some, it may be cleaning-up ash and removing “smoke-smell.” Others less fortunate may need to replace all their possessions and possibly contend with the loss of a loved one.
The emotional trauma of a wildfire may be something you never forget. It can be especially challenging for children. Children often perceive things as worse than they really are. Be sure to talk to your kids about the fire and its effects. Also, don’t hesitate to ask for counseling assistance from the Red Cross or other disaster relief organization.
These “After the Fire” recommendations are presented in three categories: Before You Enter the Home, Inside the House and Landscape Care.
Before You Enter the Home
- If you were evacuated, contact your insurance agent or company to let them know how you can be reached. Keep receipts for temporary living expenses, like motel room and meals.
- Do not return to your home until re-entry is permitted by law enforcement officials. Do not cross a barricade or hazard tape without permission.
- Be careful when going back into your neighborhood.
- Charred trees and power poles may be unstable.
- Fires may flare up without warning.
- Live power lines may be on the ground.
- Watch out for ash pits — holes created by burned trees filled with hot ash. You or your pets can be seriously burned if you fall into an ash pit.
- Check to see if your gas and electric utilities are working properly. If you smell gas, shut off the gas supply at the main valve, leave immediately, and call the gas company. If the electricity is not working, check to see if the main breaker is “on.” If it is and there is no power, call your power company.
- Your house and yard may be covered in ash and may still have live embers present. Wear only cotton, wool, or leather clothing. Wear long pants, a long sleeved shirt or a jacket, and boots. Wearing a dust mask will be especially important.
- Check for and extinguish any burning embers on the roof, in rain gutters, on the porch, or elsewhere on your property.
Inside the House
- Check for embers and smoke in the attic and in the crawl space. Check every day for several days.
- Start a list of things that have been damaged. Damage can occur from fire, smoke, water, and chemicals. Take photographs. Don’t throw away damaged belongings or make repairs until you’ve talked to your insurance company.
- Do not eat food, drink beverages, or take medicine exposed to heat, smoke, or soot.
- Smoke can infiltrate cloth and other materials. Using one to two cups of white vinegar with each load of wash can help rid clothing of the “smoke smell.” Commercial cleaning may be necessary for your drapes, upholstery, and carpet.
- Whether fire damaged trees will survive depends on several factors, including their species, their condition before the fire, and how badly they were scorched. A green or white, moist cambium layer beneath the bark is a good indicator that the tree will survive. Also, if most of the buds are still green, moist, and flexible, the tree has a good chance of survival. Sometimes it is hard to tell if a tree will survive. In those cases, it may be worthwhile to wait until next spring.
- Sometimes after a wildfire, the soil itself can begin to repel water — to become “hydrophobic.” If water won’t soak into the ground, try loosening the soil with a rake. A thin layer of straw on top of the soil can help it absorb moisture.
- Irrigate stressed plants as soon as you can after the fire. Water the ground under trees for the full width of their drip line — the circumference of their canopy of branches — and a few feet farther. Keep watering until the soil is moist to a depth off 12-15 inches.
- Fire stressed trees are vulnerable to beetle attack. Look for pink-to-red colored pitch on the branches. Beetle infested trees should be cut-down and removed.
- Soil erosion becomes a major concern after wildfire. Before the fire, fallen leaves and branches and plants with shallow roots helped control erosion. But that was all consumed by the fire. If the soil won’t absorb water, it will become even more vulnerable. Several techniques are available for controlling erosion, including reseeding, the use of straw mulch, and felling damaged trees across a slope. Planting of conservation grasses like crested wheatgrass can reduce the fire threat and help control erosion.
- After the fire, be on the look out for unfamiliar plants. They could be invasive weeds like Russian knapweed, yellow star thistle, and medusa head.
Ed Smith, Natural Resource Specialist
Sonya Sistare, Living With Fire Project Coordinator