Survival stinks

Even the lucky ones still face the prospect of smoke damage

Oakland L. Childers | Boulder Weekly

In a lot of ways Sue Norton and her husband, Noel, are the lucky ones.


Families all around them have run through their mental lists of all they lost in the Fourmile Canyon fire: the family photos, the irretrievable data on melted computers, the teddy bear that lulled a child to sleep every night, the house where so many of those family memories were made, and so much more.

And yet the Nortons’ house stood, virtually unscathed by the onslaught of flames. Had the Nortons been home, on their perch atop a hill at 401 Arkansas Mountain Rd., they would have seen fire coming toward them from three sides, up from Fourmile Canyon on one side and Sugarloaf on another.

“It kind of enveloped our house,” Sue Norton says.

The Nortons aren’t sure what spared their home from the fire that took more than 160 others nearby, but one factor certainly played a role: the mitigation efforts the couple undertook to prepare for just such a fire. All around their home is a perimeter free of trees, shrubs and flammable grass that would have brought attacking flames right up to their doorstep. Their house also sits near Bureau of Land Management land where extensive mitigation has taken place.

So they are lucky to still have a home, although it may be months before they can move back and months more before they can really settle in. The couple has moved their living quarters down to Boulder, to a 144-square-foot hotel room, a tight space that is likely to be their home for the duration of the next phase of their lives as wildfire survivors: the cleanup.

While fire never breached the Norton home, something else did. Like nearly every other home that came perilously close to destruction, smoke and soot made its way through cracks, open windows and other tiny spaces into this once-pristine home, and nothing — not even hard, seemingly impenetrable surfaces — has escaped its blackening patina and overwhelming smell.

“Everything you touch is smelly,” Norton says. “It’s quite amazing.”

Things she says she would never expect an odor to attach itself to are almost unbearably permeated with the stink of burnt wood.

“I was transferring my computer from the house to our hotel and even the keyboard is smelly,” Norton says. “Every single square inch of our home is stinky.”

Wayne Dicksteen lives in Boulder Heights, up Lee Hill Road to Deer Trail then further on up the mountain. For a week he didn’t know if his house was still standing or one of the smoldering piles of ash and relics that used to be homes. He passed the time lending a hand at the Boulder YMCA, a makeshift shelter for those fleeing the flames. He and his wife stayed with friends around town, waiting for news, until last Friday, when the road to his home was finally opened. What he found at the end of his driveway shocked him.

“It looked like I was in a dream for seven days,” Dicksteen says, recalling the first look he got at his still-standing home. “It was weird, and I felt bad for the other people. I guess the fire has to stop somewhere.”

But he, too, is faced with being in the enviable position of still having a home and the not-so-enviable position of having to clean that home of the soot, ash and undetermined dust that blew in through open windows. Initially, he thought he’d escaped totally unscathed.

“At first I told my insurance carrier I was one of the lucky ones because we seemed fine,” Dicksteen says. “The insurance people suggested we at least have a cleaning crew come up and check it out.”

What the Servpro team discovered was smoke-stained walls and floor, a patina of dust and other toxins on the surfaces of just about everything in the home, according to Dicksteen.

“[Smoke damage] is often overlooked,” says Erik Olson, manager of Servpro of greater Boulder, a company that specializes in fire and water cleanup and restoration. “It’s not like everyone who didn’t lose their home can move right back in.”

Olson says he has a waiting list of people with smoke-damaged homes that need some form of cleanup.

“We are anticipating having a few calls from [the fire],” Olson says.

The services Servpro provides depends on the level of damage smoke has done to a home. On the low end, the cost could be from $2 to $3 per square foot for a lightly soiled home. Repairing light smoke damage and neutralizing the smell might cost $1,000 total, while a major smoke problem “could be upwards of $25,000.”

Olson says the cleaning process starts with testing, to see what the extent of the smoke damage truly is.

“There are a lot of people who are unsure of the damage right now but want us to check it out to see what the damage is,” says Olson.

Olson says the company uses a dry, natural-rubber sponge on the walls of the home. The sponge attracts soot and smoke.

“If you wipe that on the wall and it picks up the soot and it’s really obvious, then cleaning is required,” Olson says.

Once that test or a visual inspection of an obviously smoked-out house is complete, cleaning can begin. The most common damage, according to Olson, is in the carpets, clothing and draperies in a home.

“In some of the more extensive situations, we’ll have to clean the ceilings and the walls,” he says.

Olson says dry removal of as much soot, smoke and ash as possible is the first course of action. The odor and soot seeps deep into fabrics and textiles.

With carpet and drapes the first step, as with most of the cleaning job, is vacuuming out the smoke and ash, Olson says.

“The first rule in odor removal is remove the source of the smell,” Olson says, emphasizing the need for a good vacuuming job upfront.

“Then we come in with a hot water steam system,” Olson says.

These steps are repeated in some way through much of the house, including on clothing and hard plastics, Olson says, with generally good results.

“Then of course there’s the odor issue,” says Olson with a small sigh that lets you know this task is the trickier of the two. “Typically with the cleanup we can remove smoke, soot and odors, but there are occasions where painting [walls and other painted surfaces] is necessary.”

Olson says some materials in a home that you wouldn’t expect to be a problem, like hard plastics — are often some of the hardest to rid of fumes. Other things are more obvious odor problems.

“A lot of times furniture with heavy padding, it’s very hard to effectively remove odors from that,” Olson says.

Servpro offers several different methods for cleaning a smoke-damaged home. The most effective, according to Olson, is an ozone extraction process in which oxygen — O 2 — is converted to ozone — O 3 — so it is unstable and wants to shed the extra molecule. Olson says the extra molecule then attaches itself to the smoke particles and is sucked away.

The biggest downside of this process is that it seriously reduces the amount of oxygen in the home, to the point where no one can be in the house without breathing equipment.

Servpro offers another similar process that does much the same thing using hydroxyl. It is less effective, Olson says, but also less expensive and residents can stay in the home while the cleaning takes place.

The final service involves spraying another smell, like lemon or cherry, through the home to mask the smell. It’s the least popular of all the services, Olson says, and does nothing to rid the house of what’s causing the smell.

When the Servpro team returns to Dicksteen’s house, he’s confident the cleaning job will be effective. He’s had the windows open and a strong breeze, he says, has been keeping the odor down and drawing away some of the dust. But he still worries about the things he can’t see or smell, toxins that could have been in the smoke and might now be in his home.

“It makes sense,” says Dicksteen of the pollutants that likely linger in his home. “You’re not just burning trees, you’re burning houses, and good Lord, who knows what’s in them?” Effective cleaning is certainly on Sue Norton’s mind as she tries desperately to rid herself of a nasty smell that’s begun to cling to everything in her life. Despite thorough cleaning, the smell has attached itself to the few items she’s retrieved from her home, giving her hotel room the same, though less powerful, scent of her own house. Still digging through some rescued items, she’s finding very little that isn’t saturated with the acrid smoke smell of a week-long blaze.

“You wouldn’t expect a glass bottle to smell, but it does,” Norton says. “Is it really possible to get the smell out of the house?” Respond: