By Cris Carl, Networx

There are few things more heartbreaking than the damage caused by a house fire. The first thing a homeowner should do after a fire is call his or her insurance company to see if he or she is covered for fire. The second thing is to call in a professional cleaner to do the clean-up.

Casper Bemis, of Sterling Quality Cleaners in Keene, NH, a cleaning company that specializes in disaster restoration, offers a few suggestions for homeowners about cleaning up after a house fire.  "Mostly, what people should do is nothing. A typical homeowner should not try to clean up after a fire themselves. They don’t have the proper tools, methods or skills to do the job," said Bemis.

Bemis said that homeowners, perhaps trying to save money, who attempt to clean walls, ceilings, or other "non-washable" surfaces, tend to make the problem worse by smearing.

Cleaning soot

Bemis said that the soot from wood is different from the soot from plastics. He said, "The clean-up is handled differently since you can’t wash oil-based (petroleum products such as plastics) from non-washable surfaces."

Bemis said his company, for instance, works to clean non-washable surfaces well enough to reduce or eliminate the need for painting. "Not cleaning properly doubles the cost of clean-up," he said. "It’s less expensive to clean than to paint."

According to Bemis, it costs approximately 20 cents-per-square-foot to clean, as opposed to about 70 - 80 cents-per-square-foot to paint.

Furniture, upholstery and window treatments

Bemis said that after an assessment is done with your insurance company, companies such as his work to bring your belongings back to as original condition as possible.

In terms of soot, a specialized latex sponge is used dry to get off the first layer of soot, and then the items are often steam cleaned.

If there is water damage, the National Institute of Fire Restoration advises placing upholstered cushions on end to dry more easily. Also, place furniture up off the floor on small blocks of wood or other small hard, flat objects to lessen damage to the wood of the furniture legs.

Cleaning in general after a fire

Bemis said that washable surfaces, such as kitchen counters, can be cleaned as you normally clean them.

Some items will unfortunately be unsalvageable. Many companies will help to clean up your belongings such as photo albums, but insurance companies will not take sentiment into account in terms of monetary loss.

Bemis said that it takes a crew of two to three people a week or more to do restoration after a fire. "It would take the homeowner a month or longer working all day every day to do the same job," he said. We will go over every square inch of your house."

Other tips from the National Institute of Fire Restoration

  • Contractors doing water clean-up should be certified.
  • For water damage, try to mop or blot up as much as possible.
  • Don’t leave books, magazines, or other colored items on the floor, as the dyes will stain.
  • Don’t use televisions, computers, or any other appliance until they have been checked out by a professional. Also, do not use any of these items while standing on a wet surface.