After the Fire: A Recovery Guide- Part Six: Smoke, Soot, and Ash

When you think of damage that is caused by a wildfire, you may think of homes that have been destroyed or scorched. What many people don’t realize is that your house or business doesn’t need to be burned to suffer damage in a fire. During a wildland fire, smoke, soot, ash and fire-retardant chemicals are spread through the fire zone. Some of the damage, char, soot and ash is readily visible, some of it, however, is more difficult to see.

If your property is in a contamination zone, your homeowner insurance will likely provide coverage for smoke, soot and ash damage. There can be exceptions, however, so it is important to understand what can be covered, what cannot, and to try and understand your policy.

During the past ten years or so, insurance carriers have been tweaking their policy forms to cut their exposure to smoke, soot and ash damage. This has been done in two ways.

  1. First, some fire policies now have a forty-five (45) day limit on when an insured can report smoke, soot or ash damage. Other policies are a bit more generous, allowing ninety (90) days. In other words, if you suspect you have a wildland fire insurance claim, you shouldn’t dally. Check your policy, call your agent or talk to someone who is knowledgeable about the field.
  2. Second, many policies now have a specified limit on the amount the carrier will pay for smoke, soot or ash cleanup. We are hearing Mercury and CNA, for instance, offer a $4,500 limit. Others offer $5,000. The limits may be enough to cleanup any contamination, or they may not, depending on the situation. Of course, your policy may not have a specified limit, which is why we always emphasize reading your policy form.

Not all smoke, soot and ash damage justifies making a claim. Insurance policies have deductibles and if the clean-up costs are minor, you may just want to take care of it yourself.


Extensive deposits of heavy soot and ash are a different matter. Here is where you will likely benefit from a professional cleaning service.

  • Cleanup generally involve a high efficiency particulate air vacuum cleaner (HEPA) to remove tiny soot particles from the air, furniture and everything else in the house, following by a good scrubbing with household cleaning products.
  • Chrome and porcelain bath fixture should be wiped to prevent etching and staining.

Naturally, any open foods that were directly exposed to smoke or ash should be thrown away for safety.

For the most part, outdoor fires involve organic materials that will dissipate over time. Think of smoke from a campfire. Just like hanging your camp jacket in the garage for a week or so cures the smoky smell, a simple wash to fabrics and airing out your home may be all you need to get rid of any musty smells.

Where you should especially pay attention is when the smoke, soot and ash is from a fire where other structures burned. Houses have lots of plastics and metals that can be toxic once reduced to soot and ash. Some structures have asbestos that may spread in the wind once released by fire.

If you suspect your home was contaminated by smoke, soot and ash or fire retardants applied to your neighborhood, you might consider consulting with a building restoration company that specializes in cleanup.

Got questions? Visit our website at and hit the email button to submit your questions.