Did you know there are over 354,000 residential fires every year in the US?
That means nearly a thousand families a day experience the terror of seeing their home burn. Even worse, it sets them on a long, complicated path of cleaning and rebuilding their home.
If you’ve had the misfortune of a house fire, it’s normal to feel anxious and overwhelmed. How long will it take to restore your home? Will insurance cover the damage? What if you don’t have fire insurance? And where will you and your family stay in the meantime?
In this post, we’ll provide the answers to those important questions. So first, take a deep breath. Then read on for our step-by-step guide on what to do after a house fire.
What Not to Do After a House Fire
Before we explain what to do, let’s start with what not to do.
First, do not reenter your home until you’ve received explicit permission to do. It doesn’t matter how long the fire has been out or how structurally sound the building appears to be. Fire inspectors need to do their job first and then give you the all-clear to enter.
Once you have entered your home, don’t turn on the water, gas, or other utilities right away. Again, wait until everything has been inspected by professionals and they’ve given you the green light.
Finally, don’t forget your responsibility to contact relevant people and organizations. The police department will provide you with a fire report, but they won’t call your insurance company or your landlord (if you’re a tenant). It’s also up to you to seek assistance from a local disaster relief service, such as the American Red Cross.
8 Steps to Recovery After a House Fire
Your family is safely outside, emergency responders have arrived, and the flames have been put out. You’re left staring at the smoldering remains of your home, and only two words are running through your mind:
Follow these steps to begin the rebuilding process.
1. Attend to Immediate Needs First
Was anyone in the home (including pets) burned or injured during the evacuation process? Even if no one appears seriously injured, be sure to let the paramedics give everybody a once-over.
If a family member or pet needs medical attention, get them over to the nearest hospital or veterinary clinic. You’ll also want to contact close friends, family, and neighbors to let them know what happened and assure them that you’re safe.
As mentioned above, do not under any circumstances reenter your home until you’ve been told it’s safe to do so. If the damage was severe, you’ll probably have to wait until different inspectors have come to check your property.
2. Find a Place to Stay
Unless the fire damage was very minor, chances are you’ll need to stay somewhere else—even if it’s just overnight. If the damage was extensive, you may need to consider long-term options.
In the meantime, check with family or friends nearby who could put you up for a few nights or until you have more information. If that’s not an option, you could also consider a local hotel.
Don’t forget about free government resources that are available too. The Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and similar organizations can help you find a temporary place to stay. They might also be able to assist you with food, clothing, medication, and other practical needs.
3. Contact Your Insurance Company
Once you and your family have received medical attention and found somewhere to stay for the night, your next step is to call your insurance agent. The sooner you file a claim, the sooner you can start repair work and/or look for a new home.
Another reason to contact them ASAP is to receive financial help with your daily expenses. Most insurance policies include Loss of Use or Additional Living Expenses (ALE). You can use these funds to cover the costs of:
- Rent for temporary housing
- Hotel stays
- Mileage associated with rebuilding or commuting
- Meals during rebuilding-related business
- Transferring or setting up new utilities
- Pet boarding
- Moving costs after fire restoration
Keep receipts of everything so you can submit them to your insurance company for reimbursement.
4. Notify Utility Companies & Financial Services
It’s a good idea to alert any financial services you use (or anyone you routinely pay bills to) about your house fire. This could include your:
- Credit card companies
- Mortgage lender
- Utility providers
- Auto insurance agency
- Financial adviser
Why is this so important? Well, the average cost of repairing fire and smoke damage is over $15,000. This is in addition to your other unexpected expenses while you’re displaced from your home.
You might be surprised by how lenient these companies will be as far as your payment schedule or waiving late fees. Most will be willing to work with you while you get your life back on track.
Bonus tip: If it looks like it will be several months before you can move in, consider canceling your cable, internet, and other services you won’t be using for a while.
5. Get Clearance & Inspect Your Home
Once you’ve received clear approval from the fire department (and your insurance company, if required), you may cautiously reenter your home. Remember that floors and walls may not be as stable as they appear, so take your time and tread carefully.
Likely you’ll want to start by gathering important documents and vital records such as:
- Driver’s licenses
- Birth certificates
- Social security cards
- Medical records
- Tax records
- Titles & deeds
If any of these were damaged or destroyed, let your insurance company know and they can help you get them replaced.
Next, make a list of all items that were lost or damaged in the house fire. This includes appliances, electronics, artwork, clothing, and other personal effects.
To receive reimbursement, your insurance company will want to know detailed information like make, model, and serial numbers. If you didn’t save receipts (or they were lost in the fire), check your bank statements or credit card statements online. This can help you provide proof of purchase as well as the exact costs of the items.
6. Save or Store Undamaged Items
Hopefully you’ll be able to recover some undamaged items as you inspect your home.
If it’s safe to do so, remove them and take them to your temporary residence. Another option is to rent a storage unit to house your belongings during the fire restoration process.
Keep in mind that homes with fire damage are a target for looters, vandals, and squatters. It’s a good idea to board up the windows and doors to discourage anyone from getting in. You could also alert the local police department so they can keep a watchful eye on your property.
7. Contact Fire Restoration Services
Unless the damage was very minor, you’ll want to bring professionals in to help with the cleanup process. Your insurance agent can provide you with a list of companies the specialize in fire restoration, such as Cleanup and Total Restoration.
Fire remediation begins with removing soot, smoke, ash, water, and debris. The water used to put out the fire can lead to rot, mold, and mildew, so it’s vital to get this out and allow the house to dry. Commercial humidifiers can also be used to remove moisture from the air and prevent further damage.
Once the air quality improves and the odors are reduced, the restoration crew can begin their work. They’ll replace or repair any damaged flooring, carpets, cabinets, or walls. It might also be possible to save and restore damaged furniture.
8. Take Care of Yourself (And Your Family)
A house fire is a traumatic experience—one that can haunt you long after you move back into your restored home. You may feel depressed, disoriented, or even helpless.
If you have children, they too might feel confused and anxious. They can sense your sadness and stress. Be honest with them about what happened and reassure them that you all have each other to lean on.
What if you or someone in the family is having a particularly difficult time coping with the event? You may want to consider counseling to help them work through the healing process.
Get Back on Track After a Home Fire
Seeing your house on fire is one of the scariest things you could ever witness. The fire restoration process could take weeks, months, or longer—and you need a place to live in the meantime.
It’s natural to feel overwhelmed, but try to take each day as it comes. Follow the steps outlined above as you work with your insurance company and fire restoration services.
It might be a challenging road ahead, but you will get through it. Think of how happy you and your family will be when you can move back into your beautifully restored home!
Now that you know what to do after a house fire, what’s next? Chances are there will be some rooms in your home that need redecorating or renovating. Keep browsing our site for more great advice about home decor and renovation.