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Young woman returning home cautiously after being evacuated for a wildfire

Returning home after a wildfire

Flames, soot, ash and firefighting techniques to fight wildfires can cause damage to your home and belongings.

The intent of this guide is to help inform you on how to safely return home following a wildfire. Please bear in mind that additional measures and steps may need to be taken, depending on your specific situation, and that you should always follow the recommendations and guidance of your local authorities and experts.

Returning home from a wildfire can be an overwhelming and emotional experience. If you or someone you know needs support, please refer to the provincial, territorial and national mental health resources outlined on the Government of Canada’s website.

Assessing wildfire damage to your home

Upon your return, you’ll be able to assess the extent of damage that flames, smoke, soot, ash and/or water and chemicals used to fight the wildfire may have caused to your home and personal belongings.

But before returning home, make sure you:

  • Have necessary supplies, such as flashlights, gloves, garbage bags, masks, tools and a first aid kit.
  • Have plenty of bottled water.
  • Understand common hazards to be on the lookout for, such as debris, wires, hazardous materials, damaged pressurized tanks, damaged or unstable trees, and hot spots.

To start your assessment, walk around the perimeter of your home, documenting any damage to the exterior of your property and other structures (i.e., detached garage, sheds) by taking photos or videos. Take caution when entering your home and continue to document damage, including potential sewage and water damage.

Making a wildfire insurance claim

Speak with your Acera Insurance advisor as soon as possible if your home has been damaged or destroyed by a wildfire as they can guide you through the claims process.

Keep all receipts and document any losses, and remember that your property insurance may also provide coverage for additional living expenses and food spoilage. Learn more about wildfire insurance here.

Cleaning up your home after a wildfire

If you decide to clean your home yourself after a wildfire, it is recommended that you wear personal protective equipment — such as gloves, masks, eye protection and boots, as well as long-sleeved shirts and pants — and that you keep the areas in which you’re working well-ventilated.

Improving air circulation at home after a wildfire

It’s recommended that you replace your furnace filter with the highest efficiency version your system can handle when you return home after a wildfire. You may also need to replace your filter more often following a wildfire due to cleaning, restoration and rebuilding activities in your neighbourhood.

Other tips to improve air circulation in your home include:

  • Using a portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter.
  • Hiring a professional to clean your ducts and air conditioning system.
  • Using a fan and opening windows — but only if you are not under a smoke or air quality advisory.

Items that may need to be thrown out after a wildfire

Heat, smoke, ash, and the water and chemicals used to fight wildfires can damage several products around your home. Before you properly dispose of any of the following items, be sure to document the damaged products for your wildfire insurance claim:

  • Food (see instructions for safe handling below)
  • Medicine
  • Cleaning products
  • Cosmetics
  • Personal care products (i.e., soap, shampoo, toothpaste)

It’s recommended that you throw away any such items that may have been exposed to heat, smoke, ash, and/or the water and chemicals used to fight wildfires — including unopened products.

Follow your local municipality’s guidelines for discarding hazardous waste, such as cleaning products, and bring any medication that needs to be thrown out to a pharmacy for proper disposal.

Safe food handling after a wildfire

Again, be sure to document any food before discarding it (following your municipality’s instructions for doing so) as your wildfire insurance claim may include coverage for food spoilage.

While we outline below health guidelines for safe food handling after returning home from a wildfire, err on the side of caution — if in doubt, throw it out.

Refrigerated and frozen food

Even if your home was not damaged by flames, your food could still be unsafe to eat as a result of smoke, soot, ash, heat and power outages.

If your home lost power at any point during the blaze, throw out the contents in your fridge — even if the power has since been restored.

In the event of a power outage, the length of time that food will be kept frozen depends on the type of freezer you have. In general, the maximum length of time that a full-chest freezer (i.e., a deep freezer) will keep food frozen is up to two days. The length of time reduces for each smaller freezer type. Do not attempt to refreeze any food that has thawed.

Unrefrigerated food

Throw away any opened and unopened food that has been exposed to heat, ash, chemicals, smoke, water or soot, including:

  • Raw fruits and vegetables that were not stored in your fridge.
  • Food in glass jars, as heat may have damaged the seal.
  • Dry goods, such as flour, sugar and spices.
  • Food packed in paper, cardboard, foam containers, plastic or cellophane.
  • Fruits and vegetables that were growing in your garden during the wildfire.
  • Bulging, rusted or dented canned goods.

Note: In general, undamaged canned goods (i.e., no bulges, rusts or dents), should be safe to eat; however, wash and disinfect these cans before opening so as not to contaminate the food inside.

Cleaning the interior of your home following a wildfire

  • Wet wipe and mop as much as possible when cleaning the inside of your home as this will minimize the amount of ash and matter that circulates in the air around you.
  • It’s recommended that you use a vacuum that has a HEPA filter — unfiltered vacuums stir up and move ash around, instead of catching it.
  • Use a mild detergent or cleaning product to wash all surfaces and belongings in your home — including walls, furniture, floors, locks and hinges, windows, cupboards and drawers, children’s toys and play structures, picture frames and knick-knacks.
  • If your fridge and freezer have not been damaged, wash these with ammonia or a baking soda, water and vinegar mixture to help minimize odours.
  • First remove soot and then steam clean your carpets, drapes, curtains and other fabric-covered furniture.
  • Wash all your clothing, towels and linens, and bedding — this may require multiple wash and rinse cycles.
  • Take your electronics outside and use an air hose to blow out all components (note: ash can cause static charges, which is why it’s recommended to clean electronics outside).

If your home has been damaged by water used to fight the fire, first dry all wet items as soon as possible to prevent mould growth and use a dehumidifier to remove excess moisture from inside your home. You’ll also need to clean all areas affected by water. Start with warm soapy water to rinse, then use a diluted bleach solution to disinfect the surfaces.

Cleaning the exterior of your home and yard following a wildfire

  • Scrape and scoop up as much ash and soot on your property and use a garbage bag or another plastic container to dispose of it.
  • Use a mild detergent to thoroughly wash outside toys, play equipment and structures, and sports equipment.
  • Remove and replace sand, gravel or other loose materials around playground equipment.
  • Regularly water your garden and lawn to dilute residual soot or ash.
  • Use a pressure washer to clean all exterior walls, windows, walkways, driveways, decks and screens.
  • Carefully rinse off all air intake vents and your air conditioner.
  • If fire retardant material is present on and around your property, follow these steps if you choose to clean this yourself:
    • Never use bleach to clean fire retardant — doing so can produce harmful and explosive gases.
    • Use clean water to wash your roof, siding, windows, vehicle and patio furniture.
    • Use clean water to rinse off your plants, trees and shrubs.
    • Use soil or sand to help soak up puddles that contain fire retardant materials.

Additional resources

  • Wildfire insurance 101 | Learn about the common coverages that offer protection in the event of wildfire and smoke damage.
  • How to file an insurance claim | We’re here to support you. Learn how to report a claim and find answers to commonly asked claims questions.