Cleaning Clothing after a Fire: Removing Soot and Smoke Odors

After a fire, if clothing hasn’t burned, chances are it has been damaged by soot and smoke. You can usually clean your clothing after a fire, but it takes some special care, and you can often save a lot of time (and money) by hiring a professional in fire restoration. They have expertise with every type of fabric, and know the exact combination of procedures and chemicals to use for each. This guide is designed to help you clean clothing yourself after a fire.

Soot Removal

The first step to cleaning your clothes after a fire is to remove any soot that has landed or attached itself to the surface of the fabric. This can be tricky, as soot is oily and won’t rinse off with water – i.e. you can’t just throw it into a washer. It takes special care, and again, professionals will have experience doing this. They have special high-powered vacuums that are capable of pulling the soot off of your clothing without smearing it into the fabric.

You can try to use this method as well, but it’s important that you don’t rub whatever vacuum nozzle, attachment or brush directly onto to the fabric. You need to hold the vacuum as close to the fabric as possible (just a centimeter or two) without making contact, or you’ll risk grinding the soot into the clothing and causing permanent staining.

Tip: Dry cleaning is often very useful to help remove both soot and smoke odors.

Dealing with Smoke Odors

Smoke odors are very hard to deal with on your own. Most people assume incorrectly that they can rid clothes of smoke odors the same way they do with all their laundry – why would washing smoky smelling clothes be any different…

With smoke odors, it’s much different.

What happens when you try to wash a load of garments with intense smoke odors in a regular washing machine? The water hits the fabric, loosens up some of the smoke odor, and then you have your clothes soaking in a stew of smoky-smelling water. Even after the rinse cycle, the odor is still present, just more evenly dispersed throughout the clothing.

The trick is to get the odor out of the clothing before you get it wet, and to do this, the best method is dry cleaning. Professional fire restoration companies and dry cleaners will use oxidizers and something called an ozone treatment, to break down and remove the smoke odor at the molecular level.

Tip: Lysol and other deodorizers made for the air are not going to help and will often damage your clothing further. It’s like spraying perfume into a stinky shoe – now you have an odor that smells like flowers and smelly feet – not a great improvement.

Let the Laundry Begin: Washing your Clothes after the Fire

After you’ve gotten the soot removed from the clothing, and the smoke odor under control, you can begin cleaning the clothing as you normally would. Sort the clothes like usual, paying close attention to the cleaning instructions on the label. You’ll likely be doing a lot of laundry, so you might want to go to laundry mat where they’ll have bigger industrial washers that do a more thorough job. Also, you can buy special detergents for fighting odors and stains – pay attention to the labels on the detergent and ask around for recommendations. You’ll often have to repeat several times (as many as 5 full wash cycles per load), but eventually, you should have clean clothes that look and smell as they were before the fire.

Tip: Make sure you’re not trying to rush and over-loading the washer with clothes OR detergent. You might think you’re helping your clothes out by using extra detergent, but if you add too much, you won’t get a proper rinse, and you’ll have dirty soap still in your clothes after the final rinse cycle.