Clearing the Air on Smoke Damage

Smoke from a building fire or wildfire can quickly fill your building. Unrestrained, it seeps into fabrics, climbs above ceiling tiles, and is inhaled into electronics. Even if equipment isn’t damaged by fire, smoke can leave more than its tell-tale scent on electronics, computers, plush furniture, and more. In the event of an active fire, even one that’s contained, it’s always important to get everyone out of your building. Even minor smoke can carry hazardous chemicals that are unsafe to breathe. But once the scene is safe, there are some steps you can take to reduce the risk of damage or loss, and some things to know about cleaning up after smoke damage.

Not All Smoke is the Same

Smoke carries within it elements from what the fire is burning – smoke from the kitchen area vs smoke coming from the school lab or a wildfire can be very different, creating unique hazards to not only people, but also your property. Smoke can also contain many different chemicals and toxins that can be corrosive to the electronic components in computers, sound equipment, copiers, and more. Depending on the severity of the smoke, the damage to electronic components can be immediate or delayed, sometimes not causing problems for weeks or months after the damage. And it’s not always noticeable. A computer may appear unharmed, but the corrosive smoke damage could be slowly eating its way through sensitive electronic connections, eventually leading to malfunctions or fire-causing short circuits.

In much the same way, smoke can damage building materials like fabrics, flooring, glass, and acoustic ceiling tiles. The immediate damage can include staining and smell. If left untreated, smoke damage can also cause building materials to deteriorate over time, potentially releasing toxic chemicals into the air. This makes it especially important to have a professional evaluate your specific situation to determine the best course of action.

Step 1 – Call Your insurance Agent

“As soon as the fire is out, it’s important to call your insurance agent,” said Rob Wahnon, a senior claims adjuster with Brotherhood Mutual. Your agent can walk you through the process of getting your claim started as quickly as possible. Depending on the severity of the damage, an adjuster may visit the property to perform an assessment to help determine what will be needed to clean or repair your building and contents.

It’s important to work with your insurance agent because they can help get the right people involved in the claims process. “Sometimes, vendors may show up to your ministry immediately after a fire. They may even pressure you into signing contracts so they can immediately begin work,” offered Wahnon. He cautions ministries that contracts can lock you into paying for services you don’t need and can delay the claims process. “Don’t be rushed into signing a contract. It’s best to speak with your agent or adjuster representing Brotherhood Mutual first,” said Wahnon.

Step 2 – Inspection

It can be difficult to assess the extent of smoke damage. There are many variables, including whether the smoke came from a fire inside the building or outside, such as a wildfire, the size of the fire, and the types of materials burned. An adjuster representing Brotherhood Mutual will perform an initial inspection, bringing in additional expertise as needed. If there is concern about the amount or type of smoke damage, an air quality test may be performed to help determine best steps to clean and repair your building’s contents. Additionally, if it’s suspected that sensitive electronic equipment may be damaged, the adjuster can recommend specialists to test and determine whether equipment can be cleaned or if it needs to be replaced, based on industry standards.

Step 3 – Restoration

If smoke damage is minor, the restoration process may include cleaning materials like curtains, pews, or carpeting and possibly re-painting affected surfaces, like ceilings or walls. A more involved restoration process may include cleaning electronic components, restoring glass or metal objects, or cleaning the exterior of your building in the case of a wildfire. There are specialized companies that your adjuster can recommend to assist with this process.

The smell of smoke can linger, even when there isn’t visible damage. Sometimes, cleaning surfaces can help remove the odor, but if the smoke damage is extensive, cleaning every surface throughout a building can be labor intensive, delaying your return to services. As an alternative, there is a company called Biosweep® that can help. They use a process called photocatalytic oxidation purification that eliminates odors throughout a building without having to remove any of the contents. The process is fast, too, reducing the amount of time you need to be out of your property.

“This technology has worked really well when I’ve used them on smoke claims. It’s especially helpful when dealing with buildings that have asbestos because they don’t have to disturb the material to remove the smell,” said Wahnon.  The photocatalytic oxidation process uses oxygen and the humidity already present in the air to eliminate odors on a molecular level, and the building can be occupied as soon as the treatment is complete.

Get Back to Ministry

Smoke and fire damage can be disruptive, so contacting your insurance agent right away can get the process started and minimize delays. It’s why the agents and adjusters representing Brotherhood Mutual work hard to help you get back on your feet. “We really just want to help ministries get back to doing ministry,” said Wahnon.

Minimize wildfire smoke from entering your building.

Wildfire smoke can damage your building’s contents, especially if you’re within a couple miles of the fire. Keeping the smoke outside can help minimize disruption and speed your return to services. Here are some handy tips to help keep smoke outside your building and to clear your building if smoke is inside.

  • Use tape to seal door and window seams
  • Close off fresh air intakes for HVAC equipment to prevent smoke from being drawn into the building
  • Seal around building penetrations such as pipes or vents

Once the fire is gone, you’ll want to clear any smoke that’s inside your building. The longer smoke lingers inside a building, the more damage it can cause, so try to clear the smoke out of your building as quickly as possible. Open doors and windows to bring in fresh air. You also can use fans to help draw in fresh air. Have your HVAC inspected before turning it back on to make sure it isn’t damaged.


Posted November 5, 2021

The information provided in this article is intended to be helpful, but it does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for the advice from a licensed attorney in your area. We encourage you to regularly consult with a local attorney as part of your risk management program.