Smoke, Soot, and Debris: CLEANING AFTER A FIRE

Photo Credit: Mike Petrucci via Unsplash

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air can be up to 100 times more toxic than the air you breathe outdoors. Imagine the effect of a fire on the quality of air in a commercial building.

Lingering particulate matter from debris represents a significant threat to respiratory health, while pools of standing water are ideal breeding places for mold, mildew and bacteria. Then there’s the hovering presence of acrid smoke, which suffuses fabrics, furniture and carpeting. It all makes for a very unpleasant place to be for any length of time, and that can be a problem if your livelihood depends on resuming work as soon as possible.

Cleaning a commercial space damaged by fire takes time and hard work, but with the proper supplies and a diligent attention to detail, it’s possible to rehabilitate your work space and get things back to normal.

Here are some tips on how to clean after a fire courtesy of the National Emergency Planning and Training Association.

Furniture and Fabrics

Furniture and other objects made of fabric will likely require an application of trisodium phosphate, a strong cleaning agent that can reduce odors and soot. A solution of trisodium phosphate, bleach, and warm water generally works best. Make sure to be careful when applying the solution, and wear a sturdy pair of gloves and a breathing filter during application.

It is to be expected that some furniture will be too badly damaged to be recovered, but this approach is frequently successful with objects that have sustained smoke damage yet haven’t been burned or otherwise physically damaged.

If you have upholstery damage but a piece of furniture is still intact, you could search for reupholstering businesses to give it a refresher. You’ll likely only want to use these services for higher-end pieces as reupholstery can be pricey—as much as $3,500 for a couch. You can easily find reviews and ratings for upholstery services in your area by visiting Angi.


Smoke, soot, and other particulates can do considerable damage to walls and floors as well. A mixture of tri-sodium phosphate, bleach and warm water can also be effective here. Make sure to take care to rinse surfaces carefully with warm water.

Concentrate on one area of wall at a time starting at floor level and working upward. When the walls have been treated, proceed to the ceiling, taking care to thoroughly wipe down each section with a bleach (one cup)-and-water solution to prevent mold and mildew from spreading.

Let the wall dry for 24 to 48 hours before attempting to repaint. For wallpapered walls, use a commercial wallpaper paste to reattach to the wall any sections that have frayed or come loose. Note that insulation and drywall that have been inundated by water can’t be dried out and reused without risking the growth of mold, or dangerously weakening the integrity of your walls.


After a fire, there’s generally an accumulation of dirty, wet debris, and standing water that has to be disposed of before any rebuilding can begin or the structure can be reinhabited. Debris may contain any number of sharp objects, as well as toxic material that could pose a serious respiratory threat.

A shop vacuum works very well under such circumstances, particularly the more powerful versions. (The bigger the mess, the more power you’ll need). Shop vacs use removable filters and are effective in safely clearing dirty, stagnant water, loose debris (such as soot and ash), and much more. Attachments, which are necessary for reaching into narrow or hard-to-reach areas, may include extension “wands,” crevice nozzles, and wet nozzles, to name a few.

Safety Concerns

Always be sure that the area to be cleaned is well-ventilated. Bear in mind that ash may contain a number of dangerous substances, from dioxin to asbestos, and should be treated with care. Make sure not to introduce ash-filled water into any water runoff system. If sweeping, do so gently to avoid introducing unhealthy elements into the breathing air. In fact, you should always wear a mask when taking on a fire damage project. A good mask and gloves are essential PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to protect you from being exposed to dangerous chemicals and splash back as you clean, as well as any irritants that become airborne.

Always put safety first when cleaning a fire-damaged space; there are often unpleasant surprises in store. Remember that cleaning materials can be nearly as hazardous as what a fire leaves behind if you’re not prepared to use them safely. Make sure your equipment is sufficiently sturdy and powerful enough to handle the job. Following these guidelines will ensure a safe and effective clean up.

The experts at the National Emergency Planning and Training Association are committed to creating effective plans to address and provide timely recovery from natural and manmade disasters. We also provide resources to help families prepare for potential disasters in order to reduce risk and increase safety. Check out our website for more information.

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