The Insurance claim and damage management industry has traditionally categorised Fire and Smoke damage to buildings on an individual incident basis, as the contaminants involved with smoke are entirely dependent on the materials burnt, fuel available, timeframe, temperatures reached, building construction methods, and building materials.
Fire and smoke damage, and consequently the appropriate response, will depend on the type and circumstances of the fire and the materials affected, together with the extinguishing methods used which can create secondary issues normally associated with water damage categories.
To correctly assess and determine the level of remediation required to the building, we must first clarify the type of fire that has occurred.
The most common types of fire and their associated effects can be distinguished as follows;
1- Low oxygen fires (slow-burning), causing odorous and wet difficult to remove residue that requires prompt mitigation procedures to minimise losses. A typical slow-burning fire is an incident when the mains incoming electrical supply is overloaded or has a poor connection. Gradually the surrounding materials start to smoulder and burn.
- These fires start slowly and as they are often in cupboards the supply of oxygen is restricted.
- The smoke produced will contain a higher proportion of aerosols and these will often find a way to get into building cavities by following the cable runs. This can be a problem as the odour can be difficult to treat in the inaccessible places.
- To the untrained eye, these type of fire residues look minor, with less obvious light brown staining.
2- Oxygen Rich Fires (fast burning), causing dry residues that affect numerous areas and are carried into difficult to access places and items
- Items suffer from more thermal damage (scorching and distortion)
- A large number of smoke chains and cobwebs are visible at high levels
- Voids and roof spaces may require some form of treatment
3- Protein fires, causing odorous residues that cannot be seen with the naked eye. These fires are usually as a result of the burning of meat, fish or some other protein.
- Odours often resemble item burnt (fish, chicken, meat etc)
- Dismantling of fixed items within the area of the seat of the fire is generally necessary
- These require numerous different techniques for odour removal and to aid with restoration processes.
- Extremely difficult to remove odours and contaminants
Why does smoke and soot travel throughout the entire building, often to areas remote to the site of the fire?
In a nutshell, High and low-pressure movement will determine the path.
The laws of physics dictate that gases move from high to low-pressure areas in an attempt to reach equilibrium. When hot, high-pressure smoke enters a room the smoke can be sucked into the lower pressure, the cooler environment of drawers, cupboards, voids, cavities, roof spaces and additional remote rooms. This is why widespread contamination is more than we would expect to see.
Whilst all of the categories of fire damage cause damage to varying degrees, the one thing that they have in common is that all of them produce, both Primary and Secondary Damage;
- Primary damage is associated with immediate damage that has been caused by the fire itself, the material that has burned, structural damage or that has been thermally damaged by the fire itself, IE Charred Timber, Burned Plastic, Burned Cables, Burned contents etc.
- Secondary damage relates to the damage as a consequence of the fire, but not directly fire damaged. These are usually caused by the corrosive residues that are produced by the burning of materials and also caused by the water used to extinguish the fire. In many cases, costs associated with remediation of secondary damage are significantly greater than the initial primary damage. Therefore assessing, uncovering and identifying the full extent of the secondary damage is critical to successful remediation and treatment of the building. Identifying secondary damage is very difficult unless you or your assessor understand the full mechanics of the fire and combustion. Therefore, generally, specialist knowledge and training are required to allow you to have the tools to uncover these unforeseen and unexpected damages.
How to identify items at risk of secondary damage;
Corrosive residues, usually revealed by high chloride levels and visible corrosion. Look at what burnt. If there were large amounts of PVC, plastics, man-made composite materials involves, for example, e.g. (a plastic waste pipe, windows, laminated worktops are usually made from PVC and plastics), these can produce corrosive residues.
Secondary damage following fires is usually caused by:
- Acid corrosion
- Odour absorption.
- Humidity/water damage and mould growth, caused by the water used to extinguish the fire, and/or damaged water pipework/storage tanks that have been thermally damaged by the fire.
What type of materials are at risk of secondary damage?
- Electrical equipment and especially electronic circuitry are very vulnerable when chlorides are present. Such as TV’s, Kitchen Appliances, Laptops, printers, computers, servers, in fact, any item that has a circuit board is deemed to be at risk.
- Machinery and tools.
- Metallic items such as door handles, shower doors etc.
- Stainless steel is particularly at risk of corrosion.
- Aluminium windows.
- Brass electrical fittings.
- Gilding on picture frames or metal ornaments.
- Plastic laminated surfaces on kitchen, wardrobes and fitted units.
- Fabrics and building materials that may support mould growth.
- Certain plastic materials and unsealed timber.
- UPVC windows and doors.
If smoke and soot damage is not correctly classified and remediated, permanent damage can be caused to the buildings. If the incorrect treatment method is employed it can cause staining and corrosion to materials, such as uPVC/Aluminum Windows, Sanitary ware, timber finishes, kitchen units, electronics, appliances, carpets etc. Improper or incorrect materials used in cleaning can cause obnoxious odours to be permanently ingrained and trapped within the materials, and no level of treatment will recover the material.
Industry insiders tip;
You get one chance to correctly identify, assess, classify and treat fire and smoke damaged building, incorrect classification can have a detrimental effect on the health of the building and will cause additional permanent damage. The faster that you can identify items at risk of secondary damage the better, as items that are left in a contaminated area will deteriorate rapidly and may quickly become ‘beyond economical repair’.
Don’t stress, Expert Help is available;
If you are unfortunate enough to suffer a loss to your home or business, ensure that the public loss assessors that are appointed are experts in the classification and assessment of fire damage and its effects on your building.
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Trevor Kelly Insurance Claim Expert