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When the smell lingers: Tips on how to remove or absorb the smell of smoke from the recent historic wildfires.

Trisha Gedon, Communications Specialist

March 20, 2024

3 Min Read
ashes, dust from wildfire
Tips on how to remove or absorb fire odor. Shelley E. Huguley

Parts of Oklahoma and Texas recently experienced devastating wildfires. Some families lost their homes, while other houses and structures in the path of the flames were spared.

Homes not damaged by flames likely experienced smoke damage, said Gina Peek, assistant director, Oklahoma State University Extension/Family Consumer Science program leader and associate dean for Extension and Engagement in the College of Education and Human Sciences.

“A fire in your neighborhood or on your acreage may cause your home to smell like smoke. The odor is caused by microscopic particles that cling to walls, furniture, floors, clothing and other items inside your home,” Peek said. “Removing the smell isn’t as easy as spraying a can of air freshener or lighting a scented candle. These remedies only mask the smell for a short amount of time. It may be necessary to have furniture and mattresses professionally cleaned. Removing the smoke smell will take time, effort and money.”

Simple things like cleaning can help remove the odor’s source. Smoke particles get into tiny nooks and crannies and can be difficult to remove. Even though the home has been cleaned from top to bottom, the smell may linger.

Homeowners can use common household items to help absorb odor while they clean. Baking soda is an inexpensive and natural odor-absorber. Peek suggests leaving a few bowls of baking soda around the house for several days to help absorb the odors.

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Activated charcoal is also an option to help abate the smoke smell. Use it like baking soda and place it in bowls around the house for several days. Keep interior doors open as well as kitchen and bathroom cabinets. If the weather cooperates, open the windows and exterior doors to let in fresh air. If much of the area around the home burned, the smoke smell may remain for some time.

Getting the smoke smell out of clothing can be a difficult and time-consuming task. Add 1 cup of vinegar to detergent in the wash cycle. Keep in mind that one washing may not remove all the odor. If the smoke remains when the clothes come out of the washing machine, immediately wash them again using the same process and continue until the smoke smell is gone. Do not dry clothes that smell like smoke as this can set the odor in the material.

“Homeowners may need to hire a professional to use an ozone generator to destroy the smoke molecules left behind after a fire,” Peek said. “This isn’t something homeowners should do themselves. There are significant health and property dangers associated with ozone. Check with your insurance company to see if this is covered under your policy. Using an ozone generator will require the temporary evacuation of your home.”

Related:Texas wildfires leave residents numb

The Federal Emergency Management Agency website lists the following tips for removing smoke odors.

For light damage. This is when you can smell smoke but can’t see any ash:

  • Open the windows and doors to air out the home.

  • Install a new filter in the HVAC unit.

  • Put bags of activated charcoal around the house to absorb odor.

  • Clean any rooms that smell like smoke.

For moderate damage. In addition to the steps recommended for light damage:

  • Wash or scrub exterior surfaces, including walls, walks, drives, decks, window and deck screens, etc.

  • Wash interior walls and hard surfaces with mild soap or other appropriate cleaning solutions or products. Do not forget inside cabinets, drawers and closets.

  • Wash, dust or otherwise clean all household items, including knick-knacks.

  • Vacuum carpets, window coverings, upholstered furniture and mattresses.

  • Wash anything with visible soot that can be washed.

  • Consider having heating, ventilating, air-conditioning units and all ductwork professionally cleaned to remove soot, ash and smoke residue.

  • Throw away food that was in opened containers.

  • Consider replacing baby items like pacifiers and bottles, along with medical devices like oxygen masks and CPAP tubing, rather than cleaning them.

Related:Panhandle fires: Finding refuge in a wheat field

Read more about:

WildfiresDisaster

About the Author(s)

Trisha Gedon

Communications Specialist, Oklahoma State University Agricultural Communications Services

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