The Maui fires continue to devastate Hawaii—how to clean your home of smoke, soot and ash

The Maui fires continue to devastate Hawaii—how to clean your home of smoke, soot and ash when it's safe to do so

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Last Tuesday, wildfires began to rage in Hawaii’s Maui island, with the biggest fire encompassing 2,170 acres. Now, nearly a week later, the fires continue to burn as fire hydrants run dry, hindering the containment and rescue efforts. Dozens of lives have been claimed so far and the full scale of the destruction on the island is yet to be seen. We do know, however, that the destruction is expected to require millions of dollars, as well as many years, to repair.

Even homes that haven’t suffered catastrophic damage won’t necessarily be unscathed. Smoke and ash can still affect you and your home even if it's not in the direct vicinity of a wildfire. This has been experienced throughout the summer by way of Canadian wildfire smoke negatively impacting air quality across the nation. As for your property, smoke can collect on any and every available surface including your car, home, driveway, yard and patio. Smoke and ash can also build up inside your home, even when windows and doors are secured shut. Cleaning your home of these pollutants is vital, as they can cause several health problems due to the poor air quality associated with them.

After a close encounter with a wildfire, your home and yard will be in need of a deep clean once it is deemed safe to do so. In the unfortunate case that a wildfire has caused extensive destruction to your house, it is best to talk with your insurance provider before making any clean-up decisions. But, if you can start cleaning safely, here’s what you need to know.

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Where are the fires in Hawaii?

The Hawaii fires broke out on the island of Maui. There are three areas of the island that have suffered greatly from these wildfires—Lahaina in the north, Upcountry in the east and Kihei in the west.

How did the Maui wildfire start?

Several factors contributed to the outbreak of the wildfire. Strong winds from Hurricane Debra fueled the flames of already-existing brushfires by providing excess oxygen and carrying burning material. Additionally, low humidity and little rainfall made vegetation dryer and more combustible, and is making it harder to quell the fires, too.

When to start the cleanup process

Once local authorities deem it safe for you to go outdoors or return to your home after an evacuation, cleanup should start immediately. Bud Summers, the executive vice president of operations and training at PuroClean, a property damage restoration service, says, “The sooner you can do it, the better.”

The longer you leave soot, ash and other debris sitting, the more likely it’ll be difficult to clean off. Settled debris can also cause long-lasting damage to certain materials. Summers explains, “Smoke can have an acidic residue, and if it sits too long, it can etch metal.” Porous materials, like some plastics, can also suffer damage from ash, and if it’s left stagnant for too long, it becomes nearly impossible to clean, which means you’ll have to dispose of those items.

What to wear for protection

Debris like ash and soot can be irritating to your skin, so try to cover up with a long-sleeve shirt and pants.

Before beginning a cleanup project, you need to consider your health and safety. This means being prepared with the right personal protective equipment (PPE).

Cleaning up ash from a wildfire can be hazardous, as it’s extremely irritating to skin, as well as lungs when inhaled. Ash contains both large and small particles of dust, dirt and soot. When cleaning, these particles are easy to accidentally inhale. That’s where protective gear comes in handy.

You should wear work gloves and heavy-soled shoes to avoid skin contact with the ash. The chemicals, metals and other potential substances in ash can be irritating to the skin. Therefore, wash immediately if contact does occur. The EPA suggests protective goggles or glasses along with an N95 respirator mask, which you may already have on hand, as it’s also effective at protecting against COVID-19. Your mask should be marked with “NIOSH” and either “N95” or “P100” at a minimum. This means the mask has been tested and approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It will help protect you from inhaling smoke, ash or toxic substances that could be mixed in with the debris.

In the event that you don't have access to an N95 respirator, the San Francisco Department of Public Health recommends using a surgical mask or a multi-layered cloth face covering. The cloth covering should be thick enough to not let light shine through when held up to a light.

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What to do when the interior of your home needs cleaning

Be careful not to tread in ash or debris from outside while coming into your home. Try to wear different shoes inside, especially once the inside of the home is clean.

Believe it or not, wildfire smoke can enter your home in several ways—even if your windows or doors are kept shut. Smoke can seep in through ventilation systems like bathroom and kitchen fans, certain heating and HVAC systems, and even small openings and cracks around closed windows and doors.

If you find ash inside your home, use a mist bottle to lightly wet the ash and dust so that it won’t recirculate in the air while you clean. You can use a damp cloth or a mop, transferring this into a dirty bucket when the cloth or mop becomes saturated.

The EPA states that you can vacuum your home, as long as your vacuum uses a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. The Dyson Ball Multi Floor Origin vacuum cleaner features whole-machine HEPA filtration and is certified by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. If you don’t own one, you can also rent HEPA vacuum cleaners or buy HEPA filters made for your specific vacuum model.

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Throughout the cleaning process, you should dispose of loose ash and debris in a wastebasket, while any dirty towels or cloths can be washed in a washing machine on high heat, says Summers.

Make sure to double-check your home’s HVAC filters, especially if your system was still running while the smoke passed through your area. If your air ducts seem clogged, it could mean your system is recirculating debris through your home. In this case, the EPA suggests having your ducts cleaned professionally.

Even after cleaning up your home, the smell of wildfire smoke may linger. You can address this by opening up windows (once the air quality outside is at a safe and healthy level) to air out the space. Try using box fans propped by your windows to help push out the smokey air.

Air purifiers work to reduce or remove pollutants from the air and have been proven to decrease the side effects of inhaling unhealthy air.

An air purifier can help eliminate that smoky smell by removing smoke particles from the air inside your home. We tested many air purifiers and ranked the Blueair Blue Pure 311i Max as the best overall air purifier. This purifier features a patented, ultra-quiet HEPA filter and fan.

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Furniture like couches, carpets, and curtains may have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. However, just as you would with stinky shoes, you can sprinkle baking soda on certain soft materials to help deodorize the fabric.

How to clean the exterior of your house

Your home itself is likely the largest thing you’ll have to tackle. Start by cleaning away the ash that may cover your exterior walls or siding. Summers recommends using a pressure washer to safely remove any stubborn soot or debris. If you don’t have a pressure washer on hand, you can buy a pressure nozzle to attach to a garden hose, and that should work just as well.

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For windows and windows sills, you can start by using a mixture of gentle dish soap, like Dawn, and water. Use a microfiber towel to clean effectively, and make sure you carefully separate clean towels from the dirty ones you’ve already used in order to avoid continuously rubbing around ash and soot.

“One of the best cleaning tips for homeowners is to have two buckets of water: One that you can put clean towels into, and [another for] those towels get dirty and saturated with soot,” says Summers. “If you take a dirty towel and put it in the [clean] bucket, you’ve contaminated your cleaning solution, and it may smear the soot.”

When cleaning the exterior of your house, you should also give particular attention to your gutters, as they're prone to gathering unwanted materials.

How to clean your patio and your pool

Similar to the way you clean exterior walls, you can carefully use a power washer or hose to attack the settled-on soot. However, the EPA says to avoid letting the ash water mixture spill into any storm drains. Once you’ve loosened up the ash with water, use a broom to sweep it up and dispose of it in the trash.

For cleaning your pool, the City of Malibu recommends first using a pool skimmer to pick up any pollutants resting on the water’s surface. Then, use a pool brush to scrub the pool’s walls and ladders to remove stubborn soot or dirt. 

From there, you should backwash your pool, which flushes out any debris that has built up in the pool filter. To do so, move your pool’s filter setting to “backwash” and let dirty water run out of a waste hose into a gravel lot or lawn area. Just make sure you don’t backwash your pool water into any storm drains. It’s not safe, and it’s often illegal.

You may need to repeat the pool skimming and backwashing process a few times to get your pool completely clean and filtered. Follow your state or county’s guidelines for specific details on how to care for your pool.

How to clean your yard and vegetation

Your plants and flowers may survive the smoke and layer of ash, as many are resilient enough. Be gentle in washing off the debris.

If your bushes, flowers and trees are covered with ash, grab a hose and spray down the plants with clean water. Summers says that spraying down plants will properly clean them off and provide them with any water they may need after a wildfire event. Some plants may be past saving, unfortunately.

Do not use a leaf blower, because doing so will sweep residual ash into the air, making particles easy to inhale and will result in even more cleanup later.

When you’d rather not DIY

If you’re not comfortable with cleaning up on your own, or you feel that you may inadvertently damage certain furniture or materials in your home or yard, Summers recommends consulting an expert.

For example, he says, “If you try to clean walls with soot on it, and it isn’t done properly, everything will have to be repainted.”

Regarding any part of the cleanup process, don’t hesitate to seek out local updates and resources from your county or state, as this can help keep you safe and informed as you work towards recovery.

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