How to Return Home Safely After a Wildfire

2020 rained down a hailstorm of natural threats, from the coronavirus pandemic to social and civil unrest. There has been so much chaos that it’s easy to forget that the world is not on fire; unless you live in places like San Francisco and Salem City where the sky turned a creepy, hazy shade of orange from smoke, smog and wildfire.

The U.S. has never experienced wildfires like these, with nearly 45,000 fires scorching more than 7.6 million acres across 10 states. Wildfire season runs from August to November, and there’s no denying that the 2020 season started off with a bang with catastrophic effect on the U.S. and claiming a devastating toll of wildlife while decimating entire communities.

[ Read: West Coast Wildfires: What to Do If Your Home Is at Risk ]

The Aftermath of the Wildfires

The Insurance Information Institute (III) reports that about 7.5 million acres have burned in the 2020 period, compared with 4.4 million acres in 2019. California’s current August Complex Fire is already the largest wildfire in California’s history, and fires have claimed more acreage in Washington than the previous 12 seasons. In Oregon, fires have scorched more than 230,000 acres and caused the evacuation of at least 10% of the state’s population. Oregon Governor Kate Brown reports that more than 40,000 homes have been abandoned, while many more residents are still missing. 

If you are of the many residents who have been forced to evacuate, this is what you need to know before you return home.


Most Affected Areas of 2020 Wildfires

California

As of October, 5, 2020, California has at least 31 fatalities and damages to more than 8,600 structures. 

Colorado

There were over 126,000 acres on fire in Colorado, with just 42% estimated containment and further threat to residents and structures. 

Oregon

As of October 6, 2020, much of Oregon is on fire with over one million acres ablaze and at least 11 fatalities. 

Idaho

As of October 6, 2020, Idaho was burning through 96,478 acres with an encouraging 62% containment.

Wyoming

The wildfires in Wyoming already spread across 151,700 acres and were 14% contained as of October 6, 2020.

Utah

Utah’s fires were 68% contained and affected 74,589 acres as of October 6, 2020.

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) is currently tracking losses across all regions of the U.S. These are the total reported losses, as of October 6, 2020, but it is a situation changing by the minute.


How to Return Home After a Wildfire

After warning residents in May to prepare for a busy fire season ahead, Governor Newsome later spoke to residents in an August news briefing with a state besieged by ferocious fires. “We are not naive by any stretch about how deadly this moment is,” the Governor said, again taking the time to stress that residents “heed evacuation orders and that you take them seriously.”

When to return home after a wildfire

It’s difficult being away from home, especially when you aren’t sure if home even exists anymore. Entire, streets, neighborhoods and communities can be wiped away, making your home feel like a battle zone. 

Licensed real estate agent John Romito is from the still-smoldering state of Oregon, where he is the founder of Heart & Home Real Estate in Eugene. “Even though the ‘All Clear’ may have been given, it is not necessarily safe to return to an evacuated home after a wildfire,” he says. 

“In some places, such as in California, you can check damage maps online,” says Karen Condor, a home insurance expert.  “Stay in touch with local fire and law enforcement officials who deem an area safe to return to after emergency officials have done their work.”

CAL FIRE agrees, saying, “The damage is often unknown until the homeowner returns days or weeks later. Before returning home, ALWAYS check with officials before attempting to return to your home.”

What to look for

We spoke to experts and locals alike to find out the safest practices for returning home after a wildfire.

Returning home

Be sure to exercise extreme caution when navigating your way back home. Roads and cities may be a far cry from what you remember, and there can still be many threats simmering under the surface and out of sight.

“Call 911 if you notice unstable power lines, charred trees, smoldering debris, ash pits, or live embers,” says Condor.

Air quality

Don’t forget about air quality, either. Smoke and ash are likely to linger in the air long after the flames have been extinguished, and they can be just as deadly if you aren’t careful. Smoke and ash are proven to cause health problems like lung and heart disease when inhaled.

If you have to return home before the air has a chance to clear, be sure to utilize a respirator that can protect your lungs. N95 masks are hard to come by in the age of COVID, but a P100 respirator or similar model can also do the trick. 

Checking your home

Condor says: “There is a list of precautions to take before you actually move back in–notably, doing your own inspection.”

She also recommends that evacuees take the following steps when they return from a wildfire.

  • When inspecting your home, do not bring your children or pets, as you don’t know what possible hazards await.
  • Be properly attired to enter your home: boots, gloves, long pants, long-sleeved shirts and a two-strap dust particulate mask or an N95 mask.
  • Turn off your main fuse box or circuit breaker until you’ve thoroughly inspected your property. Look for broken or frayed wires, breakers that may have been tripped, and evidence of sparks or burns. If so, contact your utility provider.
  • If you suspect any pipe damage, turn off the water at the main value and contact a plumber. Don’t drink or use your water until emergency officials and your community’s water system have deemed it safe.
  • Inspect nearby trees for burns and scorch marks along the trunk and roots. This indicates a tree may be unstable and need to be removed. You may want to have a specialist inspect them, as well.
  • Drench the outside and yard with water from your hose. This will cut down on dust particles and alert you to smoking hotspots or ash pits.
  • As you’re inspecting your home inside and out, document everything for insurance purposes. Take pictures or videos and make a list of damaged belongings to send to your insurance adjuster. Do not remove anything until you’ve spoken to them regarding what evidence is needed to be kept to support your claim.

“If your home seems safe to you upon your inspection, it’s still advisable to request an assessment from qualified health and environmental safety experts,” urges Condor.

As an industrial and commercial floor and painting expert, Jeff McLean spends a lot of time working on homes through his business, McLean Company. He advises, “Before entering your structure, turn off the power and gas and note any smell of gas or burning plastic,” he advises. “Remain very aware of any indication of instability in the structure and any trees or power lines that could possibly go down. To that end, also be aware of rising winds, and ash pits that could reignite a fire in the structure.”

We also heard from Leo Grover, a veteran of the disaster restoration industry. A Northern California resident, Grover serves homeowners and major businesses with facility repair and restoration through his company, Pinnacle Emergency Management.

Grover’s biggest recommendation for those returning to a damaged building from fire is to have insulation and HVAC systems checked and thoroughly cleaned to eliminate any carbon residue and smoke damage, even in hidden areas of the HVAC ducting, attic space – areas that aren’t obvious but can pose a health risk if not properly mitigated.

There are a few other risks, as well.

“Flood is a very real danger following a wildfire,” Romito warns, “so beware of storm channels like rivers, creeks, and engineered channels, particularly if rain has fallen over burned areas upstream of your home.”

As a board member of LA’s U.S. Green Building Council, Cassy Aoyagi has taken the lead in developing the organization’s Firewise Education and Tours.  “Homeowners returning from fire need to assess the safety of their full property and even their community more broadly before returning,” she says. “Fire-ravaged slopes can easily destabilize post-fire, and it’s critical to look at any that may impact the safety of your home.”

She recommends taking the following steps to assess the geographic and topographical changes that may await you when you return home.

  • Clear debris from all waterways on the property. This includes gutters to dry rivers, bioswales, infiltration pits and ponds, as well as lower-lying areas on properties with less topographical change.
  • Eliminate or reduce any supplemental water.
  • Get a professional assessment of any steep slope on the property.
  • Reinforce slopes with structures, sandbags, and/or the planting of slope-stabilizers.
  • Conduct a more broad analysis of the geology surrounding the community for slide vulnerabilities, including topographical vulnerabilities and areas where water is prevented from infiltration by excessive hardscaping and/or debris.

How to handle wildfire losses with your insurance company

When a wildfire occurs, your home insurance or renter’s insurance company will play a pivotal role in restoring your life to normalcy.

It’s something Condor deals with every day as an insurance expert. “A top priority is to stay in contact with your insurance company about wildfire insurance for homeowners,” she explains. “They help you replace your belongings and, if need be, rebuild your home, as well as [address] issues regarding temporary housing.”

The process varies for most, but it will likely include a visit from your insurance provider. “The insurance company will send a field inspector to your home to assess damages,” says Condor, “including if you’re able to return.


2020 Wildfire Support and Resources for Affected Families 

Although it acknowledges that “recovery needs for each wildfire area vary,” the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) considers these areas worthy of the most long-term support:

  • Rehousing 
  • Income recovery
  • Agricultural needs 
  • Additional preparedness support to vulnerable populations 

Other risks include widespread and extended power outages and an overall lack of transportation and mobility.

CDP also makes special consideration of coronavirus, adding, “Due to the continuing threat of fire combined with the stress of the pandemic and trauma from past fires, here will be a significant demand for mental health and counseling services.”

For anyone who is returning home after wildfire and needs support or help with crisis relief, they can request a basket of items from Everest Effect, a mutual aid crisis recovery platform that harnesses the power of community to provide immediate help and relief to those affected by disasters such as wildfire. 

“Since March, we have helped connect donors to thousands of people in crisis, getting them access to critical supplies,” says Candice, a publicist for Everest Effect. “Our mission ensures that 100% of every dollar spent is working for people in crisis and their requested needs are met.”

These are some of the additional organizations providing support and resources for families affected by the 2020 U.S. wildfires. 

[ Read: The Safety.com Guide to Wildfire Recovery Resources ]

Continued Risks

Even as you return home and settle back into normal life, it’s important that you remain vigilant for future fires. The National Interagency Fire Center’s (NIFC) warns that the season is not yet over, publishing this October 1, 2020 notice.

“Above normal significant fire potential is expected across much of California, Arizona, eastern Nevada, Utah, Colorado Rockies, and southern Wyoming in October. However, fire activity and potential will likely diminish across the West, except for portions of California, and remain normal over the Eastern and Southern Areas through November. Elevated periods of fire activity are likely in portions of Oklahoma and Texas and possibly in other locations in the Southern Area during fall into winter.” 

Aoyagi warns that many homeowners can expect to evacuate multiple times this year, so it’s important to stay vigilant.


The Bottom Line

“Even while focusing on immediate needs, remember that it will take some time for the full range of needs to emerge,” urges CDP. “It takes a while to truly understand the impact that the disaster has had on people’s lives. Be patient in planning for disaster funding. Recovery will take a long time, and flexible funding will be needed throughout.”

While fires continue to ravage his state, Governor Newsome promises to keep fighting. “We’re in it for the long haul. We’re not just here for a moment,” he vows. “We have your backs.”

Photo by VladTeodor / GettyImages


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Contributing Writer

Lena Borrelli

Lena Borrelli is a freelance journalist who has covered home security, safety, and other topics for Safety.com, TIME, Microsoft News, ADT, and Home Advisor.