What To Do After A Major House Fire

WRITTEN BY: Mark Romero


Here’s what happened to us and what I wish I had known before our house fire.

The Fire

I was asleep when the fire started on the covered patio outside my home. My wife was puttering around the kitchen along with our two dogs. As she came into the room to wake me up, I’m sure the last thing she expected to yell was, “There’s a fire outside!” Shortly after, two small explosions just outside our primary bedroom door.

We were luckier than most. We could see the fire ahead of time, and our dogs were well trained. It was easy to quickly grab their leashes and rush outside as the fire spread to our roof and the adjacent family room.

My wife was already calling 911 as we exited the house with our pups before our home began filling with smoke.

The neighbors, who could now see the flames licking the top of our roof and the clouds of billowing black smoke, had rushed over to help. It took about 5 minutes for the firefighters to arrive outside the home, and they quickly ran into action. 

The whole ordeal was over within ten minutes. We handed our dogs off to our neighbors while we began calling our families. I called my mother.

First, she was shopping with my sister, “Mom, we’re ok, and the dogs are safe.” When our conversations were over, the firefighters had finished putting the fire out. We had to wait a few hours before they would let us back in because of the toxic gases generated from the fire. 

The Damage

The one thing I didn’t expect from the fire, which seems so obvious now, is how much other damage there is besides the actual burned contents.

When the fire entered the house, our A.C. was running on full blast, spreading the smoke throughout the home. Walls that were once white were now stained black with carcinogenic material.

Everything was soaked from the fire hoses. The towels my mother brought to help clean up the water weren’t even worth putting down. 

As I said in the beginning, though, we were luckier than most. The entire family was safe, and the house was still standing. It took us exactly one year and one month before we would finally move back into the home. 

The Clean Up

Eventually, our parents arrived, and it was time to assess the damage. In some ways, the fire was the least destructive part of the entire thing. 

Before we even got to walk into the home, a damage mitigation company was already at our doorstep. “The first thing you want to do is prevent additional damage,” the man had said.

He was right, but his timing was both terrible and wonderful. He wasn’t the last damage mitigation company to arrive, merely the first in a line of at least five that would come out in the next few days. After we looked through the front door, we quickly decided to sign his contract. 

At the time, it seemed like the right decision. When firefighters entered the home, they went in “˜guns blazing’ as it were. Even though the fire was in the back of the house, water was everywhere.

When we entered the home, the laminate floor was already ruined, and the soaked home was the emotional spark we needed to sign that contract. It wasn’t the worst decision we made, but it certainly would have been easier to call our insurance company first. 

Insurance companies typically have specific damage mitigation companies that they work with. These companies give the insurance companies special rates to clean up messes after floods and fires.

I expect that having the insurance company directly responsible for the clean-up would have been a much less stressful affair with fewer questions about who should be paying who. 

More about damage mitigation:

The damage mitigation company will also clean and store your belongings until it’s time to move back into your home.

The cleaning service is valuable because you don’t want to expose yourself to the toxic chemicals from the fire.

They will do a good job cleaning most items, but there will still be things you’ll probably want to throw away when you move back in, either because they can never truly be cleaned or because they remind you too much of the fire.

The storage fees will add up over time while you are out of your house, so this is another good reason to pick a disaster mitigation company that works with your insurance.

Where do we live now?

Your home insurance company should have a section in your policy for “Additional living expenses” (ALE). This is intended to help you find where to live after a disaster that renders your home unlivable. 

We were told that we were allowed to get something equivalent to our home, but your ALE has a limit. It’s hard to say how long you’ll be displaced from your home.

The insurance company has 90 days to release your payout, so count on renting for at least that amount of time, plus whatever estimate your contractors gave you to complete the work. I suggest finding something minimally comfortable to help stretch this amount as far as you can.

Websites such as Homeaway and Airbnb can offer assistance in finding a place to say. Many people rent out their homes/apartments for one month at a time.

If the fire has damaged a significant portion of the house, it might be wise to try to rent for six months to a year, assuming you can find something furnished. Plan to do this early, while the insurance is willing to cover first, last, and deposit.

Please communicate with your insurance company immediately after you’ve found a place to stay so you can coordinate how they will make payment to you.

Meeting with Adjusters

Your Insurance Adjuster

It would help if you spoke to your insurance company about the disaster. If your insurance company is any good, they should send out an adjuster within the day.

In addition, you should expect them to send an investigator to determine the cause of the fire. The fire department will have already done this, but the insurance company will repeat it. 

Preparing for the insurance adjuster

Let them do their job if you’ve hired a damage mitigation company through your insurance. They should know what the insurance company expects of them. 

If you hired a separate company, ensure they don’t clean anything they’re not supposed to. When the adjuster from the insurance company arrives, you want them to be able to see the damage.

Take pictures and focus on preventing more damage than cleaning up the mess. Get the water off the floor, but don’t clean up debris if you don’t have to. 

Hiring A Public Adjuster

I would also suggest getting in touch with a public adjuster. The insurance company’s adjuster and a public adjuster will work for you.

They’re costly, but it’s hard to put a price on someone who will handle the bulk of the communication for you during this time. They will take a percentage of the payout, but they also increase the average amount of a payout significantly. 

The public adjuster will help you catalog any possessions damaged by the fire and make a list to send to your insurance company. It’s best to have a specific index with brand names and model numbers where applicable.

They will also communicate with your insurance company for you and ensure that you’re getting paid on time and the maximum amount you deserve. 

If you’re comfortable communicating daily with the insurance company, you can avoid hiring the adjuster.

Remember that a lot of paperwork needs to be done, and you’ll be responsible for sending all the proper documentation to the insurance company. Even with a trained public adjuster, we had to send out several documents multiple times. 

Repairing the house

After you’ve found somewhere to live and have some semblance of life returning to normal, you will want to start trying to repair the house. Drying everything out will take days; depending on the damage’s severity, you’ll need to do a lot of clean-up. 

The most important thing I realized when we repaired our home is that everyone wants to do a different amount of work. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong way to rebuild after a fire, but the insurance company wanted to do the bare minimum, and the contractors usually wanted to do as much as possible. 

An example of this would be our smoke-stained walls. The firefighters had told us that the smoke in our house was filled with carcinogens and toxic chemicals like cyanide.

The insurance company was content with painting over the walls with unique smoke-blocking paint, but the general contractors we spoke to wanted to remove the drywall and replace it.

I even had one contractor who suggested I cut my losses and sell the home. That was a rough day. He wouldn’t even give me a quote because he didn’t want to do the work required to fix the home. 

Ultimately, this is a personal decision. We opted to remove and replace everything that had smoke damage on it. You deserve to feel safe in your home, and if that means having new walls that aren’t hiding a layer of smoke, then that’s what you should fight for.

We even opted to replace our entire A.C. system because the smoke had gotten into the ducts, and no one could offer assurances that all the dangerous chemicals would be gone without a total replacement. 

Life After The Fire

Our fire was modest compared to the wildfires sweeping through California around the same time, but you should expect quite a bit of post-traumatic stress from your ordeal. 

A cigarette caused our fire that a house guest had lit in the early morning and failed to put out properly on the patio. Two years later, I’m still uncomfortable seeing people smoke.

One of the homes we stayed at during the repair had a lawn guy that smoked heavily. He left his cigarettes on the back porch, and my wife remarked that the stress she felt disposing of them was akin to the care you would take handling a loaded gun. 

If you feel like you need therapy, you should go. It can only help. Even though it wasn’t the cause of our fire, I checked my oven twice before bed.

We no longer burn candles in our homes. It’ll take a long time before you feel truly safe again, but take things one day at a time, and you’ll get there.

Also, for our sake, if you have to smoke, dispose of your cigarettes safely. They’re one of America’s top 5 causes of house fire deaths.