After a Home Fire – What to Do
Once the fire is out, the recovery process begins. Here’s what to know and do – and not do.
WHN TIP – First Needs: If you need immediate assistance with shelter, food or other personal needs, consider contacting your local American Red Cross chapter.
- Contact your insurance agent as soon as possible, preferably before meeting with fire officials.
- Prior to the walk-through, contact your agent and ask if someone from the company should also be present.
WHN TIP – For Renters: Make sure you complete the walk-through before the property is turned over to the landlord; ask the fire department what your state’s timeline is (four days after the fire or six weeks?). Landlords are not required to recover your belongings.
Take Care of Your Health
- Smoke inhalation problems can appear or last after the fire has been put out. Call your doctor if symptoms include a persistent cough, wheezing, vomiting, high temperature or breathing difficulties.
- Watch for symptoms of stress and fatigue.
- Talk with your children about what has happened and how they can help during the recovery. Being involved may help them deal with the situation.
- Many of these things will be happening at the same time (phone calls, housing, talking with insurance agents or local support organizations) and you may feel out of control. Remember that you can set a comfortable pace for the next steps.
It’s a hard time, yet remember to tell friends and relatives what has happened and that you are safe.
If you move to temporary housing, begin notifying the people on your emergency contact list. Download our Family Contact List and begin to alert work/business contacts as well as family and friends — this is also a way to keep track of important numbers at this time.
Additionally, be sure to call the police department and tell them if you will not be in the home for an extended period of time. NOTE: You may need to make immediate arrangements to secure your property. Ask the fire department about service companies available in your area.
Alert the following companies about the fire and your temporary change of address:
- Any delivery services (water, newspapers)
- The post office (to change your mailing address)
- Utility companies
- Your bank
- Your insurance company (health, vehicle, property)
- Credit card companies
- Social Security Administration
- Neighbors (at least one of them)
Ask for Assistance
You can contact any of these groups for information and possible assistance. Some may have next-step instructions for you.
- The American Red Cross
- Civic organizations
- Department of Social Services
- Local humane society
- Your insurance agency
- Nonprofit crisis counseling centers
- Religious organizations
- Salvation Army
You can ask the American Red Cross and other volunteer organizations for help with your immediate needs, such as:
- Cleanup kit
- Hearing aids or other prosthetic devices
- Other essential items
- Other physical aids
- Pet needs
- Temporary Housing
WHN TIP – The Red Cross: Your local American Red Cross chapter may be able to provide you with a voucher to purchase items to meet emergency needs. Call them at 1-800-RED CROSS ( 1-800-733-2767).
WHN TIP – Wildfire? If your home was damaged by wildfire, you may be able to apply for assistance. Go to Disaster.gov for more information. You do not need to have insurance to be eligible for assistance.
Find Temporary Housing
Depending upon the house damage and the type of insurance you have, you may be staying in a friend’s home, a hotel, or a shelter. Should you need temporary housing, here is a starter form for you to write down your temporary housing details.
Remember to find out how long you can stay at each place.
WHN TIP- Hotels: Some hotels may offer 1-2 nights of free lodging after a fire. Call the hotels in your community and ask if they offer this service.
American Red Cross shelter location (Main number: 1-800-RED CROSS [ 1-800-733-2767])
Date/Length of Stay: ___________________________________________________
Other local relief shelter and phone number:
Friend/family member’s house___________________________________
Provide appropriate people with your temporary housing and contact information and, if necessary, an alternate contact (phone and e-mail) in case you are unavailable.
WHN TIP – Insurance Account: If you are insured, think of the money as an insurance account and every time you receive money from the agency, you are depleting your account. For example, if you are insured for $100 and your living expenses are $30, you may only have $70 to restore your house and belongings. Be sure you understand the type of coverage you have, what “account” they are taking your insurance money from and how it may affect your rebuilding/restoring process.
- Start two folders or notebooks: one to track phone calls, notes and everything relating to the fire; the other is an expense book to track all expenses. No expense is too small. For both, remember to include dates and times for all entries. You may be reimbursed under your policy.
- If you are using a credit card, designate one card for post-event expenses, keeping all receipts with your monthly credit card statement for backup.
- Receipts could include:
- Building contractors
- Cell phone, pager or another method of communication
- Child care or other care providers
- Cleaning services (clothes and house)
- Clothing, personal items (medications, toiletries)
- Food (purchased from stores and from restaurants)
- Hotels or other temporary living expenses
- Mailbox rental (if mail needs to be redirected or forwarded)
- Pet supplies, boarding costs or pet care providers (for on-site care)
- Security services (to prevent looting)
- Storage rental unit for possessions or vehicles
- Temporary business relocation costs (if business was home-based) including answering service and other expenses
WHN TIP – Keep Originals: Be sure you keep copies of what you are sending to the insurance company — don’t give away your last copy!
WHN TIP – Tax-Deductible: Some fire losses are tax deductible. Keep receipts of what you spend for repairs or replacements, as well as those for living expenses, to help calculate your return. Contact your local IRS office for publication 547 (Tax Information on Disasters, Casualty Losses and Thefts). By filing Form 1045, (Application for Tentative Refund), you may be able to receive a quick refund. Check with your tax attorney, insurance agent or accountant.
Salvaging Your Belongings
WHN Expert TIP – Water Damage Clean-Up Tips: Greg Kistler, a ServPro cleanup and restoration specialist from South Washington County in Minnesota, provides water and smoke damage cleanup advice in these podcasts.
Here are a few things to consider as you begin the process of re-entering your house. This is NOT a comprehensive list, but it can help you get started.
WHN TIP – Hold Everything: Do not throw away any damaged goods until after an inventory is made. All damages are taken into consideration in developing your insurance claim.
- Be safe, be smart.
- After a fire, homes can be a dangerous environment because of structural damage or electrical or other hazards.
- You should wait until authorities have declared it is safe to return to your home. Then, work with local authorities and/or your insurance agent
regarding re-entering your home.
- Using graph paper, sketch a site plan of your property that notes the location of gas, electricity and water meters, if you know where they are
located. Take this with you when you return to your home in case you need to turn the utilities off.
- Mentally prepare.
- Know that this process is emotional and very tiring.
- If you have a hard time coping with the destruction, ask for help. Relief organizations often offer access to or info about counseling services.
- Re-entering your home should happen during daylight hours for maximum visibility. Artificial light may not be available due to power loss.
- When going through the house with an agent or fire official, find out what you need to wear and bring.
- Ask what you will need to note, and what you are allowed to touch (if anything). Let them know you will be recording the visit with your phone or another device. (Borrow one from a friend if yours was lost in the fire.)
- Gather supplies to bring with you.
- Download our Records Recovery Checklist for important documents and records to bring with you or locate when you return home.
- Read our What To Take With You, our starter list of what supplies you may need.
- Wear thick rubber gloves, a dust mask and goggles (to protect your lungs and face), and thick-soled boots.
- Grab your flashlight (even in daylight to help you spot items) and a wooden stick for going through the debris.
- Be careful walking around your property. After a fire, steps and floors may be covered with debris, including nails and broken glass.
- If you see downed lines or sparks, or smell burning with no visible fire, or smell the “rotten eggs” odor that is added to the gas, leave immediately and notify the authorities.
- Look for exterior structural damage on the remains of the house.
- Do not go under or near any remaining walls, chimneys, roofs and trees. They may be structurally unsafe.
- Take pictures of EVERYTHING. The pictures will help your insurance claim process. Take pictures/video of the exterior and debris at all angles, all sides no matter what is or isn’t left. Take wide and close-up shots.
- When you walk through your property, if you haven’t yet retrieved important documents, attempt to get:
- Personal identification: driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates
- All insurance information (life, home, health, car)
- Medical/medication information, including eyeglasses, hearing aids or other prosthetic devices
- Valuables, such as credit cards, bank books/account numbers, photos, and jewelry
- Any statements, including mortgage, utilities, and other monthly
- When you find your belongings:
- Take a picture of the item before you touch it.
- Place each item in a plastic garbage bag.
- If large objects, like a sofa, are salvageable, cover them with a tarp.
- After, make a list of all the items you saw or recovered, their serial numbers and their current condition (i.e. blue couch, water damaged, 3 cushions missing). This will help your insurance claim. Again, take pictures and videotape items.
- Once you have determined what is unsalvageable, find a place to put discards. Make it easily accessible for removal by truck or consider renting a portable trash container.
- Remember to take food and water breaks as you are salvaging. You don’t have to get all the salvaging done in one day. Come back the next day and continue your work.
- Determine what cleaning tasks you will undertake or hire professionals to handle. Need to clean your clothing or salvaged items?
- Read Start the Cleaning Process for helpful tips to clean up soot, smoke and water.
- If you have lost or damaged important documents, check this out for replacement document tracking.
WHN TIP – Cleaning Up: The insurance company may recommend that you clean your items rather than pay to replace them. Understand that the fumes and smoke smell may never be removed from some items. It is up to you to negotiate this with the insurance company.
WHN TIP – Make a Wedding Registry! “My parents had a house fire that was such a complete loss – there was very little remaining from which to compile an inventory of contents. To help jog their memories, they went to Target and created a wedding registry, then they walked through the store and scanned the items they lost in the fire. Granted, the items they lost weren’t exactly the same, but it gave them a printed list of like items to use to create their property claim. We all got a good chuckle about my 45-year-married parents having a “new wedding date.” – Jill A., MN
Start the Rebuilding Process
Understand that the salvaging and cleaning process can take months. In many cases, waiting a few weeks to repair your car or house will cause no further damage, and prices are sometimes more reasonable after the initial rush is over.
However, if the roof of your home is leaking or your car’s windows are broken, repairs should be made as quickly as possible.
WHN TIP – Claims Adjuster: Insured? Do not have your home repaired or property replaced until both have been evaluated by a claims adjuster. A claims adjuster is appointed by your insurance company. To learn more about claims adjusters or what to ask an adjuster, read Working with a Claims and/or Public Adjuster.
- If you are insured, ask your insurance agent to provide an exact list of what is covered in the rebuilding process. Ask them to explain what items will not be covered by insurance.
- Wait to hire contractors until the insurance company has assessed the damage.
- Also, ask for a list of preferred vendors and ask if you need to hire from the insurance company’s preferred list.
- Repair estimates
- Typically, you will be asked to get several estimates.
- Get an estimate for full repairs. You’re entitled to have your home restored to its full glory, not just patched up. Keep the receipts!
- Read 4 Steps to Rebuilding and Renovating a Damaged Home to learn more.
- Designate a relative or friend to act as the spokesperson in conversations with the insurance company, construction crew, family and others involved in the rebuilding process.
- Read 4 Steps to Choosing a Contractor or Restorer to learn what to look for when hiring a professional and for tips on questions to ask.
For More Information
FEMA.gov–What Should You Do After the Fire – A downloadable pamphlet with advice and recommendations on what to do after the fire.
The information provided here is not meant to be a substitute for professional legal or medical advice. These tips are from first responders, lawyers, insurance agents and people who have shared real-life advice; always check with a doctor, lawyer or appropriate professional you trust before making any legal or healthcare-related decisions.