Public Health Considerations for Residents Returning Home
Inside the home – Take the following safety precautions upon returning to your home:
- Ensure that the structure is safe prior to doing work in the affected area. Walk carefully around the outside and check for loose power lines, gas leaks, and structural damage. If you have any doubts about safety, have your residence inspected by a qualified building inspector or structural engineer before entering.
- Do not enter your home if it was damaged by fire and the authorities have not declared it safe, if you smell gas, or have concerns about structural damage.
- When re-entering the building, use flashlights instead of lanterns or candles, in case there’s a gas leak.
- Thoroughly clean and disinfect damaged areas to reduce risk of disease.
- Sort contents of the damaged areas of the home to separate salvageable furnishings from unusable debris.
- Hire a professional cleaning company to steam clean and disinfect salvageable furnishings.
- Dispose of materials exposed to wastewater if they cannot be steam cleaned thoroughly or disinfected.
- Discard contaminated food, cosmetics, stuffed animals and baby toys.
- Fire-damaged mattresses, pillows, foam rubber items, upholstered couches and chairs, books and most paper products generally should be discarded.
- Contact your trash collection company about removing furniture, appliances and bulky furnishings, or take these items directly to a landfill.
Wells and Wastewater After a Fire
Your well or septic system could be adversely affected by the fire, power outages, equipment failure from fire damage, or contamination of water supplies. Be prepared, and have plenty of bottled water available for drinking and cooking when you return home.
- Visually inspect your well and other components of your water system for damage including melted wiring for pumps and the well head.
- If the well head has been damaged, temporarily cap or cover the well with a 5 gallon bucket to prevent contaminants from entering.
- If you find damage or contamination to your well or water system, do not drink the water and contact an appropriate contractor to repair the damage or treat your well.
- If your water tastes or smells earthy, smoky or burnt, you may need to thoroughly flush your water lines. Loss of pressure and power can impact safety of your drinking water.
- When returning home, turn on a faucet in the household to see if water comes out. You should not hear any air being released from the faucet. The flow of water should be steady and uninterrupted. If you do hear air escaping from the faucet with water intermittently spurting out when it is turned on, that is an indication that the well and household plumbing had a loss of pressure and should be checked to make sure it is safe from bacteria.
If you have a cistern that was exposed to the fire, have the water in it tested before consuming.
If you have concerns about water safety, have your water tested. For more information about water testing, visit www.sjbpublichealth.org. Go to Environmental Protection Programs, then Environmental Health, Water Quality tab.
While awaiting results from your water testing, you can use your water for flushing toilets and it is reasonably safe to use in a shower or bath. Take care to avoid swallowing water. You should boil or disinfect water for drinking or cooking purposes and for washing dishes or other cooking utensils.
When returning to your property, inspect the area where your septic system is located for signs of damage from fire and traffic from fire-fighting operations. If you feel your septic system may have been damaged, discontinue use until a licensed professional has inspected the system. The system may have been impacted if:
- Plastic piping above ground has melted.
- Evidence of vehicle traffic in the area of the system.
- The raised system was in the direct line of fire (i.e. grass on top is scorched).
- There is damage in the area where the pipes enter the home.
For information regarding location of your septic system please reach out to San Juan Basin Public Health Environmental-Health Department at 970-335-2052 or send an email to email@example.com.
Considerations for resuming use of your septic system:
- Continue to use your system if there are no signs of damage.
- Discontinue flushing or using sinks if drains are backing up, your lift station has no power, or your system has surfacing effluent in the soil treatment area. If the system is malfunctioning contact San Juan Basin Public Health, for guidance and instruction regarding repair and restoration of the system.
If you cannot flush toilets:
- Use one of the portable toilets provided.
- Use a portable chemical or camping toilet, which can be purchased from a recreational vehicle or camping equipment supplier.
- Use a National Sanitation Foundation (NSF)-approved composting toilet, which can be purchased from a plumbing or ecological products supplier.
- Wash your hands often, or use disposable wipes or hand sanitizer.
- Use disposable utensils and dishes.
- Have extra trash bags and disposable wipes available.
Loss of electrical power:
- Always keep meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs refrigerated at or below 41°F, and keep frozen food frozen.
- If you lose power, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature. Most refrigerators will keep food safely cold for about 4 hours if unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours if the door remains closed. For a freezer that is half full, keeping the door closed can maintain the temperature for 24 hours.
- If you need to open and close your refrigerator and power is going to be out for a prolonged period of time, use dry ice or block ice to keep your refrigerator as cold as possible. Fifty pounds of dry ice should maintain an 18-cubic-foot full freezer for two days.
- Discard perishable food that has been held at temperatures above 41°F for more than 4 hours.
- Discard any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture.
- Discard food in your refrigerator and freezer that looks suspicious, such as the presence of liquid or refrozen meat juices, soft or melted and refrozen ice cream or unusual odors.
- Never taste food to determine its safety.
- Food unfit for human consumption also is unfit for pets.
- If in doubt, throw it out.
Fire and smoke create insoluble tars, plastics and their by-products that may be suspended in the smoke for an extended period of time. All of these make food products unsalvageable.
Food exposed to fire can be compromised by four factors: heat, smoke, firefighting chemicals and power outages affecting refrigeration.
- Food in cans or jars may appear to be fine, but if they have been close to the heat of a fire, they may not be edible.
- Heat from a fire can activate food spoilage from bacteria. If the heat is severe, the cans or jars can split or rupture, resulting in unsafe food
- Discard foods in cans or jars, as extreme heat can re-cook canned goods and adversely affect the contents.
- Toxic fumes, which may be released from burning materials, are one of the most dangerous elements of a fire. The fumes can be hazardous, and they also can permeate packaging and contaminate food. Discard all meats, oil products such as butter and produce.
- Discard food stored in permeable packaging with friction-type closures and food packed in cardboard, cellophane or plastic wrap.
- Discard raw foods stored outside the refrigerator.
- Discard refrigerated or frozen food if it has an off‐flavor or odor when prepared. Food stored in the refrigerator or freezer can become contaminated by fumes, as the seals are not necessarily airtight.
- Chemicals used to fight fires contain toxic materials that can contaminate food and cookware. While some of the chemicals may be listed as non‐toxic to humans, they can be harmful if swallowed. These chemicals cannot be washed off food.
- Canned goods and cookware exposed to chemicals can be decontaminated if they have not been subjected to severe heat. Wash with soap and hot water. After washing, dip in chlorine bleach for 2 minutes, in a solution as directed on the bottle’s label. Rinse and let air dry. Discard all foods that have been exposed to chemicals.
- Food stored at room temperature, such as fruit and vegetables.
For additional information, please contact the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Division of Environmental Health and Sustainability at 303-692-3645 or San Juan Basin Public Health at 970-335-2052.
The information contained herein was sourced from Boulder County’s website at: https://www.bouldercounty.org/safety/fire/wells-and-wastewater-after-a-fire/, and from CDPHE’s Disaster Recovery Guide found on their website at www.colorado.gov/cdphe.