How can fire damage be hidden? We’re not arguing that all fire damage is hidden – you can’t miss blackened walls, charred furniture and fallen masonry. However, fires cause damage in several ways and some of those can be hard to spot. In addition, efforts to put the fire out may cause further damage. In brief, the fire itself will cause damage through heat (such as melting plastic or metal), smoke and combustion (things that have been burned). Extinguishing the fire commonly involves breaking doors or windows to allow access, large volumes of water to put the flames out; foam and other fire-fighting chemicals – any of these can cause resultant damage, some visible, some not. Below you’ll find 7 hidden dangers to check for after a fire. Remember: even a small fire can cause hidden damage, so it’s best to be extra cautious – particularly as one of the key risks of hidden fire damage is another fire.
- Damage to electrics and wiring
Heat from a fire can melt plastic insulation around wiring, cause it to sag or break and damage the interior of apparently unscathed electrical equipment such as washing machines, fridges or stoves. If an appliance has been in the vicinity of a fire, it’s essential to get it tested before considering using it even if the smoke smudges wipe off and it looks as good as new. The same can be said for wiring in a building and is even more essential if water has been used to put out the fire as water and electricity do not mix. Faulty wiring or a damaged appliance can easily cause another fire, due to the internal soot deposits hence it is important they are assessed before re-use.
- Damage to gas pipes and systems
Plastic and metal pipework can be damaged by heat without being directly affected by flames. Metal pipework may expand when heated and contract again when cooled. As a result, it may appear in good condition but the seals may have been rendered ineffective, resulting in possible leaks. A gas leak can be lethal even if it doesn’t start another fire or an explosion. Smoke can also affect filters and clog up hidden areas of any system which draws in air, such as a boiler. As a result, if there’s been a fire anywhere near your gas system – for example, if a nearby property has had a fire which may have affected your venting systems or external pipework – then it’s essential to get your system checked and tested by a qualified engineer.
- Damage to water pipes
Tucked away inside the walls, water pipes are still at risk. Similar to gas pipes, heat can melt plastic and metal pipes as well as destroying the seals and generally creating leaks. While a water leak won’t start another fire (unless, perhaps, the water enters the electrics…) it can cause serious damage to your property if the leak isn’t detected quickly.
- Particle and gas inhalation
Once the smoke has cleared, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was safe to at least breathe inside your property. Sadly, that’s not necessarily the case. Combustion can release toxic gases from burned materials, particularly plastics and painted surfaces. Older buildings may even have asbestos, which can also be released by the fire. As a result, it’s essential to assess and properly ventilate an area before attempting to clean it up plus, use appropriate masks over your nose and mouth to avoid inhaling particulates. Off-gassing due to fire damage can continue for days or even weeks after the fire has been extinguished and can also settle as a fine dust over surfaces throughout the building, even in areas apparently unaffected by the fire, so caution is vital throughout the clean-up process. If you have any suspicion that asbestos may be present, contact a specialist immediately.
- Health risks from hidden smoke
If you remember a time when it was OK to smoke in pubs and restaurants, you’ll know that smoke smells can linger. Particulates can linger along with the smells and even cause lung damage through the ‘thirdhand smoke effect’. This is a particular risk for those who already have a weakened immune system, including babies, children and the elderly, as well as anyone who has a pre-existing lung condition, such as asthma.
- HVAC systems
As well as heat damage to ducts, heating, ventilation and cooling systems are particularly vulnerable to smoke damage. Smoke residue and particulates from off-gassing can build up in ducting and be redistributed by the system at a later date. Essentially, if the ductwork isn’t cleaned it can store toxic gasses and particulates and reintroduce them into your property over the following weeks and months. If a system is rarely used or usage depends on the season, such as heating and air conditioning systems, the problem may not be noticed until the system is switched on, necessitating further, expensive, remediation work.
- Hidden structural damage
Few structures can withstand the heat and combustion of a fire for long, but even those that do, such as brickwork and steel joists, may have been structurally compromised by the heat. Depending on the circumstances and the load they are required to bear, even a small drop in the effectiveness of a wall or RSJ could lead to a catastrophic failure in the future. This is particularly important if the structural elements (such as walls, floors and staircases) will need to hold heavier than normal loads during the clean-up and repair phase.
- Water damage
We’ve written extensively about the risks of water damage, including a piece about the hidden dangers of water damage, so please click through for details. And, as extinguishing a fire can involve thousands of gallons of water being pumped into your property, you should treat it as though it has been flooded as well as having suffered a fire and look for hidden water damage too. Some dangers of hidden water damage include: structural damage and undermining damage to electrical systems and wiring, damage to heating systems, water system contamination, hidden water pooling, damage to plaster and wall structures, hidden damp and mould growth.