Articles – Fire and Smoke Damage

Make this year the year to understand fire perils, as well as Escape of Water

While there are normally grumblings that the festive season gets earlier every year, for many of us, 2020 is the year that Christmas couldn’t come soon enough.

For an unlucky few homeowners and business owners, the unfortunate truth is that any Christmas cheer will quickly be snuffed out by a fire or escape-of-water event. Fire, in particular, is a risk that rears its head at this time of year, as Aviva recently highlighted.

The insurer scoured its domestic claims data for the months of December and January going back to 2016 to identify its ’12 claims of Christmas’, and fire-related incidents feature heavily on the list. From fairy lights overheating to candle centrepieces burning down table decorations and kitchens being ruined by ovens catching alight, there are a variety of situations where fire presents a serious seasonal hazard.

The right response

Of course, a Christmas ruined by fire not only has a personal impact, but also a financial cost. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) states that fire is one of the most expensive property insurance claims, with £1.3 billion being paid out to customers during 2018 alone.

This figure is a reflection of the often challenging nature of the work to repair and restore homes and businesses after a fire. These are situations where damage management companies must respond quickly and knowledgably in order to provide the services that will mitigate the impact not just from the fire, but also from smoke, ash, debris and water.

But because fire damage restoration claims are less prevalent than other claims, such as escape of water, the causes, impact and remediation options are not necessarily as well understood. Indeed, the latest available data from the ABI shows that escape of water was responsible for 30% of domestic claims while, at 17%, fire and explosion accounted for almost half as many cases.

So, with Christmas fast approaching, we have taken the time to quickly look at some of the key aspects of fire damage, their impacts on property and the relevant remediation options.

Material impact

As a general rule, fires can be categorised into three types: natural, synthetic and protein. Each is defined by the type of materials burnt and the nature of the particle residue to be decontaminated, with consideration also given to the substance used to extinguish the blaze. All of these factors play a part in determining the restoration process.

Natural fires involving materials such as paper, wood or fabric are typically the most straightforward to manage since they result in a sooty grey-black residue with large particles, enabling dry-cleaning methods to be used.

In contrast, synthetic fires involving plastics, UPVC and other man-made materials, will require wet-cleaning methods since they leave a sticky, wet residue of smaller particles that often lead to smearing or staining if dry-cleaning methods are used.

If a synthetic material contains chlorides, these can be released in large amounts when burnt, travelling with the smoke and settling on surfaces. In environments where 35% Relative Humidity or higher is evident, the chlorides then react with air moisture to form Hydrochloric Acid (HCl), which can have a highly corrosive effect.

Undoing unseen problems

Synthetic fires are also notable for leaving a strong, acrid odour, although this issue is most severe in protein fires involving organic matter. The very unpleasant odours associated with protein fires make them the most challenging to decontaminate, compiled by the fact that the wet, greasy residue, normally a yellow/brown colour, is not always visible.

Dealing with such ‘unseen’ problems is a hallmark of fire damage restoration. For example, because smoke particles are mainly comprised of carbon, they can also cause significant problems in electrical equipment. The residue build-up has both acidic and conductive properties, causing shorts across tracks and introducing a new fire hazard by enabling heat to build up.

Equal care must be taken when dealing with delicate items, such as furniture or documentation, particularly if they are of value or importance to the policyholder. Direct thermal damage, such as burning or charring, will require the skills of a specialist restorer, but this may also be true in less immediately obvious circumstances. An example is where smoke particles have penetrated the grain of wooden furniture. Failure to identify this issue and employ the necessary specialist support opens up the risk of the problem being compounded further through inappropriate onsite restoration.

The ease with which smoke spreads and infiltrates all areas of a building, including hidden voids, means that odour control is a crucial factor in fire damage restoration. This requires the complete decontamination of smoke residue followed by a comprehensive deodorisation, and possible re-odourisation, process. Smell is a powerful sense, and customers are known to make judgements on the quality of the entire restoration process based entirely on whether or not bad odours are present.

So, for policyholders unlucky enough to endure a fire damage nightmare at Christmas - in what has already been a difficult year – providing the requisite combination of speed, skills and specialist knowledge might not guarantee a happy New Year but it certainly ensures restoration is completed as effectively and completely as possible.

For more information on Polygon’s comprehensive fire damage restoration solutions, including details of our work to help the Royal Albert Hall recover after a blaze, click here.


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