Wildfire risks extend well beyond the blaze itself. High pH levels, residual ash and ammonia from fire retardant are abundant in post-wildfire areas. They can cause major skin, eye and respiratory irritation as well as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea when ingested. Healthy adults can consider returning when the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is 6 or less, while at-risk individuals, including pregnant women, children, individuals with respiratory or cardiovascular conditions and seniors over 65, will want to delay return until the AQHI is 3 or less.
Consider the following Do’s and Don’ts when re-entering after wildfires:
- Don’t run back. Local authorities will often phase local re-entrance, starting with the areas least affected and naming specific return routes. Follow these directions, including road closures. Avoid unmarked shortcuts – there’s usually a good reason to avoid side roads and closures.
- Do use appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for breathing and to protect your head and body when re-entering a damaged home or facility. These include N95 protective mask, safety glasses or goggles with wrap-around protection, long-sleeved shirts, pants, gloves and boots, and protective helmets if there's a risk of falling debris.
- Don’t drink the water. Use either pre-packaged boiled water or water that has reached full boil for at least one minute prior to consumption for drinking, brushing teeth, cleaning raw foods, preparing baby formulas and making ice. Wash hands with soap and water and use alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing more than 60 percent alcohol immediately after drying hands. Water used for bathing and washing clothes doesn’t need to be pre-boiled.
- Do take good care of yourself. Your home or clinic will likely not look as it did when you left. Know that fear, stress and anxiety will likely be heightened for may during re-entry after wildfires. Give everyone time to mourn and heal and seek counseling when necessary.
- Don’t return unprepared. Bring a flashlight, gloves, and garbage bags when you return. Walk around the exterior of your home or facility first, noting electrical wiring, sewage, water damage, the smell of gas or fallen debris. Enter with caution and find out if utilities have been reinstated before turning on your gas, water, or electricity. Know that smoke and other odors can remain a long time and areas may need to be cleaned multiple times.
- Do document it all. Take pictures and maintain a running inventory of lost or damaged items, both inside and outside the home or facility. Keep track of your expenses and receipts. Your insurance may cover a fire restoration specialist.