Wildfire Journey, Part III: How To Rescue a Refrigerator

Homey stuff on my salvaged refrigerator

Once the mandatory evacuation order was changed to a warning (aka “it’s okay to go back, just be ready to skedaddle at a moment’s notice”) we went back to our place several times to check things out and make plans on priorities before moving back. Although we were immensely relieved to have a house to come back to, we noticed the light coating of ash on the foliage and the smoky odor inside. Our insurance adjuster came out to the house a couple of days later and we did a walk-through. He pointed out a little ash here and there on the inside window sills, and among other things offered the cost of a professional smoke damage restoration company as part of the settlement. After speaking with several local companies, and returning to take a more careful look inside and out, we decided to clean it ourselves, with the help of local house cleaners, and use the difference to buy a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner, a shop vac, and several air purifiers.

The refrigerator and chest freezer had been without power for three weeks by this time. We hauled the refrigerator on to the back porch and, armed with rubber gloves and doubled trash bags, emptied it. This was a bigger operation than it sounds because we had to take the refrigerator freezer door off in order to fit it through the sliding glass door. The smell, while qualifying as “stench” was not as bad as we’d feared. More “funky” than “rotting carcass.” Most of what was in the fridge was either in glass or plastic containers or vegetables. Our friend up the block, a strict vegan, said hers didn’t smell that bad, more fermented than putrid. Within a short time, the freezer interior was covered with black flies. We left them to their work, freezer door open, and went back to our hotel. When we came back the next day, the smell had largely dissipated and the flies were gone.

The next step was to sanitize and deodorize the refrigerator. Up and down the block, folks were just trashing theirs, but we wanted to at least attempt to salvage ours. My husband did a first pass on the interior with pressure spraying full strength degreaser/cleanser, rinsing with (non potable) water, then wiping it down with dilute bleach. With the doors open, there was no smell, but when we closed the doors and left it for a time, the funky smell returned, albeit not as intense as before.

On social media, neighbors were comparing experiences cleaning their refrigerators. I felt heartened that some had had success. We did some research and found the following resources:

  1. Cleaning Your Refrigerator After a Power Outage (University of Florida)
  2. How to Get Rid of Funky Refrigerator Smells (Consumer Reports)
  3. Beyond Baking Soda: The Best Way to Deal With a Stinky Fridge (Serious Eats)
  4. The Best Tools for Keeping Your Fridge Odor Free (Epicurious)

By mutual agreement, I took over the next phase. After studying the UFlorida article, I took a Costco-sized tin of decaf coffee grounds, which no one in the family drinks any longer), spread a thick layer on 3 old cookie sheets, put one on each rack, closed the doors. And turned on the refrigerator. The fridge was now in the house but not plugged in. I’m not sure why we didn’t think of that, but it turns out that circulating the air within the fridge is important to deodorizing.

I let the coffee grounds do their work for three days. By the second day, though, we could smell a distinct coffee tang but no other odors. The final steps involved re-enlisting my husband to clean the condenser, where icky stuff had dripped and then dried, and then do a two-day stint with baking soda to remove the coffee grounds.

The result: a clean-smelling, extremely clean refrigerator with quite a few years of life left in it.

The chest freezer was another matter. Because the interior had seams, it wasn’t possible to sanitize or clean it thoroughly. We called our trash collection service for a bulky item pick-up, then bought a new one. We got a frost-free upright this time.

Besides all this cleaning, we all went through a bit of unexpected grief about the loss of the contents of the appliances, particularly the blackberries my daughter and I had picked all summer, and the squash and green beans that were at the beginning of their harvest. We consoled ourselves that the blackberries would indeed return next summer, and this time we would be able to see them in the freezer better. Our squash plants had flourished in our absence and burst forth with a second harvest (actually on their third now) so I’ve frozen a dozen or so pints of summer squash and the same of green beans.

During this time, we had a small, office-sized refrigerator with a tiny freezer that we bought (with the money saved by cleaning the house ourselves), which has now gone to live in the garage beside the upright freezer. It was a great thing to have because it allowed us to take our time with the refrigerator clean-up, and we will now have a bit of extra cold space (for pears next year and overflow produce).

Through all this, we’ve developed a new appreciation for the convenience of being able to keep foods cold (and to grab an ice pack for a bruise). It’s a luxury that so many of us take for granted. Through most of human history and today in many areas of the world such a thing is unknown. Oddly enough, having my familiar refrigerator back makes this place seem much more like home. I wonder why that it is so.

4 thoughts on “Wildfire Journey, Part III: How To Rescue a Refrigerator

  1. That’s a really good approach. You come out of it whole, which is the big thing. With the 2003 fires, we were without power but not evacuated, so a group of us shared the food from the refrigerators in ad ad hoc dinner party. It didn’t use everything up, but it made us feel better.

  2. Thanks, Gillian. I always figured the best way to reduce waste was to repair and clean (and repurpose, although for a refrigerator that’s not practicable).

    When I first moved up here, I had my own place sans generator, so lost power but never long enough to have food spoil. A few winters before, however, it had been out for 2 weeks, and the neighbors did just what you described — had a big barbecue to use the meat, then shared out what they could.

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