Recovering Your Data After a Fire

You’ve had a house fire.  You, your family and your pets are all safe and unharmed, but your possessions have been badly damaged by heat and smoke.  As you sort through your charred belongings trying to figure out what you can fix and what’s beyond repair, you come across your laptop, badly damaged but not completely burnt to a cinder.  It’s full of important data, work files and family photos that you’d hate to lose.  How can you even start recovering your data?

Believe it or not, even bad fire damage isn’t always the end for your hard drive data.  The drive itself may be completely unusable, but with the right tools and a lot of patience, it may still be possible for an expert to retrieve your data.  To give yourself the best chance at recovering your important files after your hard drive is damaged in a fire, you should understand how to handle a fire-damaged hard drive, and what steps an expert will take to try to get your precious data back.


– take the computer to a clean, dust-free environment before opening it.  A fire-damaged computer is already covered in soot and other particulate matter from the fire.  Introducing more dust into an already-dirty machine increases the risk that it will cause damage to the internal platters and fine electronics that are crucial to getting your data back.  Open your computer on a clean surface, and use gloves so that oil from your fingers doesn’t bind with the soot and clog up the inside of the drive.

– ground yourself before removing the drive.  The soot and extreme heat from a fire can wreak havoc on a machine’s internal electronics, making static shock a real risk.  The shock you might get from a hard drive won’t kill you, but it could hurt; more importantly, a static shock will cause your hands to jerk, potentially damaging the drive further.  Keep a hand or foot on a grounding screw while you work, and try not to touch the drive’s electrical components.

– package the drive carefully.  Heat from a fire makes the internal components of a drive expand; pressure puts strain on a drive’s internal parts, and the soldering and adhesives keeping the drive together weaken when exposed to extreme heat.  Shock to the drive risks damaging or disconnecting already weakened parts, so package the drive very carefully in shock-absorbent packaging and put it somewhere safe until you’re ready to take it to a professional.

– take the drive to an expert quickly.  Damaged hard drive components can degrade very quickly even if the drive is being stored well.  The sooner you have an expert retrieve the data, the fewer important files you are likely to lose.

Do not…

– try to clean the drive.  Even though soot and dirt are very damaging to a hard drive, applying the pressure you need to wipe off the dirt risks causing more damage to the drive.  Don’t worry about soot that comes off on your fingers, but avoid using cloths or wet wipes to try to get the grime off.  A professional computer technician will use specialized tools and solvents to clean the drive without causing further damage; trying to do so yourself just makes more work for them.

– open the hard drive.  As tempting as it can be to open up the hard drive and see how bad the damage is, you don’t know which internal components have been damaged and how badly.  In a drive weakened by fire damage, it is incredibly easy to cause catastrophic damage to your data by accidentally pulling lose an important part.  By keeping the drive closed, you ensure that anything that comes loose does not fall out of the hard drive and get lost.

– try to run the drive.  Damage from soot and heat can be kept under control if the drive doesn’t move, but as soon as the internal platter starts spinning any grit inside the drive will either be flung around the inside of the hard drive, knocking on already-damaged components, or ground into the platter, ruining your data.  Even if the drive can be run, it’s a very risky idea to try it.

– try to fix the drive yourself.  Even if you are very experienced with computers and can usually fix minor mechanical flaws, fire causes very serious and complex damage to the inside of a drive, and even slight mistakes can destroy your data forever.  It might be expensive to take your hard drive to a professional for data recovery, but you’re paying for fine tools, expensive equipment and years of expertise, all of which together could be what saves your important files.

What a computer technician will do to your hard drive 

When you take your fire-damaged hard drive to an expert, he will follow several steps to see if your data can be salvaged.  First he will clean the outside of the drive, using solvents specially designed to deal with soot.  After cleaning the drive, he will open it to assess the internal damage.  After carefully cleaning the inside of the drive, he will remove the platters containing the data and clean them individually, as even tiny particles of soot can prevent data being read.  At this point, depending on how badly damaged the rest of the drive is, he will either reassemble it piece-by-piece using spare parts, or he will house the platters in a spare array with an undamaged drive head.  Once the platters are set up so that they can be read, the computer technician will use his usual data recovery programs to see if the data on the platters is readable and can be salvaged.  With luck, the careful cleaning, disassembly and rebuilding will pay off: unless the platters are subjected to enough heat to actually melt, usually a surprising amount of data can be recovered from them.  Once the data has been recovered, the technician will either put it on DVD, transfer it to a new hard drive or upload it to a server so that you can once again have your important files on your new computer.

by David Molnar

Leave a Comment