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Spotting clouds of black smoke rolling over the treetops, I drove into the neighborhood slowly, fearing the worst. There was the little house I had just built for an elderly couple, girdled by firefighters armed with hoses while the roof blazed and crackled furiously. "If they're inside," I thought, "they could be dead." But through the smoke, I recognized the owners, unharmed, talking to the police. A bad connection in the couple's dryer had leaked gas and exploded like a grenade. Fortunately, nobody was home.

The next day, they phoned: "Can you help us rebuild?" My first thought was to say no, thinking it would be easier to tear down and start over again. But the insurance adjuster wouldn't hear of it, insisting the house could be fixed. Thanks to his patience and advice, two months later my customers moved back into their fully restored home.

That was nearly 20 years ago. Since then, I've rebuilt dozens of homes badly damaged or nearly destroyed by fire. And while I started out with virtually no experience in fire restoration, now it represents a sizeable portion of my business.

In my area, only a handful of contractors seem to be willing to put up with this messy, hazardous, and very specialized work, so competition isn't too stiff. A willing remodeler can tackle a fire job just by learning a few basic steps, acquiring several new tools, and learning to think like a structural paramedic. After all, the work has its advantages: Bad weather and weak economic cycles have little impact on restoration work. Payment comes from insurance companies, so it's reliable. And if you do a good job, it's easy to get repeat business; one adjuster can hire you time and again.

Securing the Site

Since nobody plans for a fire, restoration jobs come ad hoc, sometimes on Sunday, often in the middle of the night. Usually an adjuster or insurance agent calls with an address and a general description of the disaster. By the time I arrive, the fire department has done its job; my part involves first making a preliminary damage assessment and then securing the building.

Since I have to be ready to roll whenever the call comes, I keep some basic gear in my truck, including gloves, a dust mask, a flashlight, a pry bar, and a folding ladder. I wear thick-soled boots to protect my feet from broken glass and other sharp wreckage, and stock disposable coveralls in the cab to shield my clothing from soot stains and smoke odors. Sometimes I rub Vaseline on my face and hands so I can wash off the stench without having to remove a layer of skin.

As soon as I arrive at the job site, I walk around the building to assess structural damage. I look for broken windows and doors, holes in the exterior walls, and damage to the roof. If I find any of these conditions, I radio my employees. A specialized board-up crew installs 1/2-inch plywood and reinforced polyethylene sheets wherever rain, wind, or mischief-makers could get in.

I check the utilities, too. Though the fire department usually contacts the electric, gas, and water companies to disconnect their services, I have discovered downed power lines, leaking gas pipes, open water mains, and other hazards requiring immediate attention.

Once I've determined that the perimeter is secure and the building appears safe to enter, I try to find access into the basement. This allows me to inspect the floor joists and stairs from below. Fire travels up, so it's sometimes necessary to shore up a few joists before it's safe to walk around.

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A fire can cause both obvious and hidden structural damage, creating dangerous working conditions. Here, temporary shoring supports weakened floor joists.

Because there's usually no power on the site, members of my crew carry battery-powered tools, flashlights, kerosene heaters, and a portable generator. To keep the workers safe, I supply them with hard-hats, respirators, disposable coveralls, heavy-duty gloves, and safety glasses, and I insist they wear heavy-soled steel-toe boots and sturdy work clothes with long pant legs and long sleeves. Their first job is to secure the building, eliminate dangerous conditions, and drain plumbing lines. Sometimes they'll mop floors and pump out standing water. If I suspect that hazardous materials are present, such as lead paint or asbestos, I hire qualified technicians to test for them and, if necessary, remove them before we proceed further.

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The right equipment, including disposable overalls and respirators, makes fire cleanup easier and safer. One of the specialized tools the author uses on a fire-damaged site is a thermal fogger, which emits a dry mist that helps to neutralize smoke odors.

Demolition and Salvage

Like any remodeling project, the first step in fire reconstruction involves selective demolition. But in a fire job, this becomes a salvage operation, too. We start out by sorting through rooms full of charred furniture and personal effects to make sure we rescue sentimental items — perhaps a wedding ring, a family portrait, or a beloved teddy bear. We work slowly, cutting and removing damaged doors, wall coverings, and carpets without injuring adjacent surfaces. It typically takes several days and dumpster loads before the job starts to resemble a more normal renovation project.

Fires frequently do more damage to the contents of a house than to the structure, so a big part of our job involves separating salvageable personal effects and moving them to a secure, dry location for cleaning and inventory. We also have to throw away items damaged beyond repair. To help the homeowners inventory the items we discard, I provide all of my employees with disposable cameras. They make notes and take photographs of every item we discard.

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Anything that gets tossed in the dumpster is photographed, while salvageable personal effects are carefully cleaned and deodorized before being stored in a clean storage facility.

 
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Clothes stored there are deodorized with an ozone generator, which helps eliminate lingering smoke odors caused by burning wood.

Restoring personal effects. In our warehouse facility, we have an enclosed room equipped with an ozone generator to deodorize every restorable item. In a separate area, workers clean furniture, bric-a-brac, and appliances. Important papers are deodorized, wiped with dry chemical sponges, and stored in file boxes. I take bedspreads, clothing, stuffed animals, and linens to a dry cleaner that specializes in smoke-damaged fabrics. Singed photographs go to a studio where workers scan the images to re-create family portraits. By the time we're done, the owner's personal effects are often cleaner and better organized than they were before the fire. To keep track of everything, I provide my move-out crew with a simple, color-coded floor plan and corresponding colored tags to attach to every item, room by room.

Dealing with water damage. Water from firefighting efforts and melted pipes can damage a structure even more than the flames did. If there's major water damage, I'll hire a specialty subcontractor to dry out the building. But by using fans and an industrial-strength whole-house dehumidifier, we generally can bring humidity levels down to normal levels. If the air-conditioning system is functional, we can also run that to help dehumidify the building. One thing we don't do is turn on the heat, which only helps create a petri dish-like environment that breeds mold and mildew.

In winter, plumbing can ice up right after a fire. To prevent this, a cup of antifreeze in each toilet and a splash of it into p-traps can save thousands of dollars in fixture and pipe replacement.

Repairing Structural Damage

The extent of structural damage depends on how hot the fire was and how long it burned. Structural steel, masonry, and sheet metal expand and weaken in the presence of heat. It's not unusual for steel headers and beams to collapse. Roof trusses dry out and shrink when exposed to intense heat. Even if they haven't caught fire, this shrinkage can loosen truss plates and weaken the roof structure.

You can't accurately assess structural damage without first mapping the exact route the fire could have taken. Flames can race up between studs and destroy a portion of the roof while leaving the walls apparently intact. Floor joists can burn to the point of failure while hidden behind a drywalled ceiling. And even when a fire isn't hot enough to burn through wood framing, it's still possible for wire sheathing and flexible ducts to have melted in joist and stud bays. So, in order to determine if flames went up through balloon framing, into chases, and across drop ceilings, I try to make a visual inspection of the entire fire path, even if this requires removing drywall. I crawl into the attic, climb onto the roof, and peer down the chimney.

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Heat and smoke can travel along joist bays and melt electrical wiring without causing obvious structural damage. Removing drywall is the only way to accurately trace a fire's path and assess the damage.

When the framing is charred, I try to determine how deeply the fire has burned through it. As a guide, I refer to the Uniform Building Code's notching standards for structural members. Charring at the top or bottom of a joist, for example, shouldn't exceed one-sixth the depth of the joist. Load-bearing studs can't be charred more than one-fourth their width. My rule of thumb is that any damaged framing that falls within these limits can stay, requiring only cleaning and bracing; framing burned beyond these limits gets replaced.

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Though framing may be charred on the surface, joists and studs can still be structurally sound.

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Paring down to solid wood helps the author determine if joists and studs meet code-specified notching guidelines, or if they need replacement.

Some structural systems can fail even when wood members haven't burned at all. The metal clips that hold an engineered truss together can loosen with even moderate heat, dangerously weakening the entire structure. If I have questions, especially on roof trusses or engineered floor systems, I don't hesitate to get advice from my building inspector or a structural engineer.