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Wildfires can leave lingering smoke and ash in people's homes and businesses. When you return to a home or business that has survived a wildfire, it's important to take precautions to protect yourself and your family from inhaling smoke and ash. Smoke and ash can cause lung, heart and other health problems when disturbed then inhaled or ingested.
Oregon Health Authority, DEQ and OSHA do not require nor administer certifications for returning to a home that has survived a wildfire. Make sure you're aware of your local county's resources and guidance for safely returning home.
Protect yourself and your family when cleaning up after a wildfire:
- If you see ash or a layer of dust, keep children away until it has been cleaned.
- Cloth face coverings, paper masks and bandanas are not effective at filtering out fine airborne ash, dust or asbestos fibers. N95 respirators, if properly worn, can offer protection from airborne particles.
- Do not use a leaf blower. Avoid activities that could stir up ash and make it airborne again, like using a leaf blower, dry sweeping, or vacuuming without a HEPA filter.
- Use rubber gloves when cleaning up ash. Wash any ash off of your body or clothing right away.
- To clean up ash outdoors: Gently dampen the ash – do not use a pressure washer, which will generate dust before it wets things down. Then use a vacuum with a high efficiency HEPA filter if you have one. Do not use a leaf blower or regular shop-vacuum to clean up ash because it will put more harmful dust into the air. If you don't have a HEPA-equipped vacuum, gently sweep or scoop up the ash.
- To clean up ash indoors: Use a damp cloth to clean surfaces indoors. Use a wet mop on floors. Do not use a vacuum to clean up ash unless it has a high efficiency HEPA filter.
- Turn on an air purifier or ventilation system with a high efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA) if you have one. HEPA filters in your indoor heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) system and air purifiers can help remove particles from indoor air. Make sure your purifier is designed for the size of the space or room where you plan to use it.
What about my garden?
It is always important to follow simple steps to reduce exposure to toxic substances when gardening:
- Wash, soak or peel plants to avoid eating dust and soil particles.
- If young children are in the garden with you, ensure they do not eat the soil or dirt.
- Water plants near the bottom of the plants, to prevent soil from splashing up onto plants. Avoid overhead watering.
- Take off shoes and wipe down pets to avoid tracking soil or ash into your home.
- Wash your hands.
What should I do about items in my house that have been damaged by smoke?
Smoke damage can be extensive in all areas of the home. It may damage computers and other electrical surfaces as well as textiles and other surfaces.
- Clothing/textiles. Follow cleaning instructions recommended by manufacturer. Washable textiles may benefit from adding 1 to 2 cups of vinegar to each wash load. Vinegar will help in removing odor and residue from smoke damage. Some materials may require multiple washings. Remember that water damage can cause mildew and off-odors following a fire, which may require additional enzyme cleaners to remove.
- Your computer and other electrical appliances could also be affected by smoke, heat or water. Check the owner's manual before operating.
What should I do with food left in my house?
- Never taste food to determine its safety. You can't rely on appearance or odor to determine whether food is safe.
- Dispose of any fresh food that shows signs of damage from heat or fire, including ash or smoke. Any food displaying an off-odor or signs of spoilage should be thrown out. If food such as grains or flour is caked, doesn't flow freely, or is contaminated with ash, water, or chemicals, discard.
- Excessive heat produced by fires can influence the safety of stored food. Toxic fumes from burning materials can contaminate food. Throw away food stored in permeable or semi-permeable packaging such as cardboard and plastic wrap.
- It is recommended that any home-canned food and food in screw-top jars that has been exposed to the extreme heat of fire be discarded. If the heat of the fire doesn't cause the jar to break, high temperatures can cause some bacteria to spoil commercial or home-canned food. High temperatures can cause jar lids of home-canned food to come unsealed, allowing bacteria to get into the food. The jar lid may “seal" again when the temperature drops, causing an unsafe jar to appear safe. The jars may be reused but the food inside should be thrown away.
- If your power was out during fires, learn what to do with refrigerated or frozen foods using tips from the Oregon Health Authority:
- Place spoiled food in heavy trash bags and seal. Do not let bags come in contact with children or pets.
This information compiled by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Occupational Safety and Health.