It’s shaping up to be one of the worst years in forest fire history worldwide. As of August 2017, more than 29,000 fires burned U.S. soil and over a thousand blazed in Canada’s British Columbia.
Forest fires in the Western U.S. now occur nearly five times more often, burning more than six times as much land and lasting almost five times longer than they did in the 1970s and ‘80s.1
For locals, these fires are a personal enemy, threatening their lives and jobs, forcing them to evacuate and leave belongings behind. Eventually, when the coast is clear after wildfires, returning home also brings with it a new set of Do’s and Don’ts.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Re-entry After Wildfires
High pH levels, residual ash and ammonia from fire retardant are abundant in post-wildfire areas. They can cause major skin, eye and respiratory irritation as well as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea when ingested. Healthy adults can consider returning when the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is 6 or less, while at-risk individuals, including pregnant women, children, individuals with respiratory or cardiovascular conditions and seniors over 65, will want to delay return until the AQHI is 3 or less.
Consider the following Do’s and Don’ts when re-entering after wildfires:
1. Don’t run back. Local authorities will often phase local re-entrance, starting with the areas least affected and naming specific return routes. Follow these directions, including road closures. Avoid unmarked shortcuts – there’s usually a good reason to avoid side roads and closures.
2. Do use appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for breathing and to protect your head and body when re-entering a damaged home or facility:
- NIOSH 95 (N95)-rated protective masks to reduce exposure to ash and soot. Know that these masks can make it more difficult to breathe.
- Safety glasses or goggles that provide wrap-around protection.
- Long-sleeved shirts, long pants, sturdy gloves and boots with a thick sole to prevent puncture from sharp objects. Consider head-to-toe protection for areas with high-damage.
- Protective helmets or hard-hats where risk of falling debris exists.
3. Don’t drink the water. Use either pre-packaged boiled water or water that has reached a full boil for at least one minute prior to consumption for drinking, brushing teeth, cleaning raw foods, preparing baby formulas and making ice. Wash hands with soap and water and use alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing more than 60 percent alcohol immediately after drying hands. Water used for bathing and washing clothes doesn’t need to be pre-boiled.
4. Do take good care. Your home or office will likely not look as it did when you left. Know that fear, stress and anxiety will likely be heightened for many during re-entry after wildfires. Give everyone time to mourn and heal. Consider this especially for younger and older family members and co-workers. Seek counseling when necessary.
5. Don’t return unprepared. Bring a flashlight, gloves and garbage bags when you return. Walk around the exterior of your home or facility first, noting electrical wiring, sewage, water damage, the smell of gas or fallen debris. Enter with caution and find out if utilities have been reinstated before turning on your gas, water or electricity. Know that smoke and other odors can remain a long time and areas may need to be cleaned multiple times.
6. Do document it all. Take pictures, maintain a running inventory of lost or damaged items, both inside and outside the home or facility and keep track of your expenses and receipts. Your insurance may cover a fire restoration specialist.
Stay in Touch During the Transition to Recovery
The post-wildfire experience will be different for everyone, depending on the severity of damage to your home or office. What’s critical for all is staying in touch with your HUB broker who will advise you of policy limits and reporting requirements as well as options for reimbursement and repairs as you transition to a full recovery after wildfires.