Rising From the Ashes: Wildfire Smoke and Ash Cleaning for 5 School Districts
2018 was a historic year for ASR Property Restoration, not only in growth, but it was also the year that we became experts in cleaning schools after wildfires, and became heroes to our local school districts, the parents, and our community. ASR Property Restoration, with a full-time staff of 70 people who were already busy, restored, cleaned, deodorized, and set equipment in over 50 schools from two separate wildfires in our county. For these schools, we ended up employing over 600 people, had over 500 air scrubbers, 250 Hydroxyls and both events were performed ahead of schedule with lost school time being only 7 to 10 days. These two fires were responsible for displacing over 30,000 students in the schools we worked on in five school districts. The work was performed with the same scope and strategy, saving the insurance carrier over 3 million dollars. The total combined revenue for all school work was $13.5 million dollars completed in 6 weeks.
The Thomas Fire:
The Thomas fire started December 4, 2017, and eventually burned 281,893 acres. The blaze consumed more than 1,000 structures throughout Southern California before it became 100% contained January 12. It also led to devastating mudslides in Montecito that killed 17 people and destroyed dozens of homes. The fire, fueled by strong Santa Ana winds and dry conditions, devastated portions of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. It also concluded the costliest year of wildfires in US history, in which fires did more than $10 billion in damage. About $177 million was spent battling the Thomas Fire alone, according to Cal Fire. All within 15 to 30 minutes north of our office.
Job and Scope
While the fire was in progress, we received a call from the Maintenance Director from the Santa Paula School District asking us to look at a few schools that were in the proximity of the fire. They were concerned with smoke odor, soot and ash intrusion. These schools each consisted of 25-30 classrooms, libraries, cafeterias, bathrooms, and offices. We immediately requested that a third-party environmental professional be retained to write the protocol. As soon as we were on site to look at the first school, we were asked to look at the rest of the schools in the district. The environmental professional recommended HEPA vacuuming, wet wiping of all contents and surfaces, carpet cleaning, air scrubbers, HVAC cleaning, deodorization, and power washing of the exterior structures and play areas.
The district agreed with the scope and signed our contract. Just as we were kicking off the Santa Paula School Project, we received a call from the Risk Assessment group for the entire school district mentioning that there were 10 additional schools impacted in Ojai which needed immediate attention as well. So, in addition to the average sized schools we were cleaning in Santa Paula, Ojai School District had a high school and a middle school that each more than doubled the size of the others. There were basketball gyms with 35’ ceilings, auditoriums with performance stages and crow’s nests. We would have to lay down Ram board and plywood to protect the hardwood gym floors and bring in lifts. We approached each school with a plan in place.
The plan ran very smoothly and the staff at the schools were thrilled. We were able to complete 13 schools for $3.5 million dollars in three weeks and 7,824 students and teachers returned to school ahead of schedule. Most importantly, we solidified a key relationship with the school districts in our community.
The Woolsey Fire:
The Woolsey Fire started on November 8, 2018 in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties of California. The fire burned 96,949 acres of land. The fire destroyed 1,643 structures, killed three people, and prompted the evacuation of more than 295,000 people. The fire started in Woolsey Canyon near the boundary between Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The Santa Ana winds, which often are a factor for Southern California fires, pushed the fire in a southerly direction throughout the first day. The Ventura freeway between the San Fernando Valley and the Conejo Valley was closed as the fire crossed it and headed into the rugged Santa Monica Mountains. The fire raced through the steep canyons where it encountered historic movie and TV sets, small ranches, and the homes of celebrities. Hundreds of homes in Malibu were destroyed or damaged on both sides of Pacific Coast Highway all within 15 to 30 minutes south of our office.
Job and Scope
While the Woolsey Fire was still burning, we received a familiar call. It was from our contacts at the VCOE (Ventura County Office of Education) and the Risk Assessment Group who were very pleased with our work in the Ojai and Santa Paula school districts just a few months prior. Oak Park and Conejo Valley School Districts had roughly 40 schools for us to inspect and the best part is they didn’t even entertain retaining any other contractor for the job. The individual scope varied from full cleaning and deodorization, to horizontal surfaces only, or equipment only. These schools were larger than what we cleaned earlier in the year and we had two weeks to get the 23,522 students, teachers, and staff back to class.
Just like the last event, and just as we were starting in Oak Park and Conejo Valley, we received another call, this time from the Santa Monica Unified School District. They were referred to us by our contacts at the VCOE…. And they needed four schools in Malibu cleaned with the same full scope without deodorization and all refrigeration systems cleaned. Malibu still had no power after two weeks, so we had an additional week after Oak Park and Conejo Valley schools before we needed to get the 2,000 students and staff back to school.
We had a total of 3 weeks to clean and set equipment in 44 schools in three districts and get almost 24,000 students and staff back to school.
Strategy and Challenges:
Time and manpower were our biggest challenges and we knew if we had more people, we could get it done within the promised time frame. ASR Property Restoration has an average of 70 full-time employees and we needed to hire about 50 people for the school work from the Thomas Fire to not decimate the rest of our work already in progress. We thought about temp services but decided to offer the great paying jobs to family, friends and other people from the community that were affected by this devastating fire. We used social media and word of mouth to advertise prevailing wage jobs and get the word out, it was a great success.
When the Woolsey fire hit and we signed 44 schools, we simply duplicated our past efforts and called all the past ASR temp hires. We asked if they wanted to work again and if they could help spread the word to family and friends. We used social media again, this time it really took off in our community…people wanted to help in the recovery efforts any way they could. We had retired firemen, contractors, parents of students that attended the schools, we had people from all walks of life …we were helping them, they were helping us, and we were all helping our community recover. It was an incredible experience to hear the stories of the people that we hired to help…they wanted to be there, and it was beyond touching. ASR was able to hire over 350 people, plus the 70 we had on staff and the additional 200 we had from a temp service. We reached out to other restoration companies and we were able to bring in 4 additional project managers that could help run some of the schools. When we were ready to work …we had over 600 people ready and willing to help get the 24,000 students back to school.
We broke the labor force up into teams of four and assigned classrooms to each group and spent roughly 60-90 minutes in each room then moved to the next room. We had teams of 2-3 that would follow up and hit details that were missed. This typically took another hour and allowed 2 sets of eyes on each room. Air scrubbers ran during the cleaning and HVAC cleaning took place simultaneously.
Smoke odor in the air and porous materials was another challenge. Obviously, Hydroxyls were the first thought and we certainly put them to use. However, these typically need to run for 4-5 days in order to truly have an effect. We had an average of four days total per school to get in and out with all tasks completed, so we had to come up with a better solution.
While SteraMist is known for its disinfecting capabilities, it also has been known to have a tremendous effect on smoke odor with the additional benefit they would receive at no additional cost… a 6-log kill of everything in that room. This would cut down on germs, potentially decreasing illnesses with the teachers and students. We would be leaving the rooms cleaner than they’ve ever been. The adjuster agreed, and it became part of our scope. By applying this technique, we were able to deodorize several hundred thousand square feet of porous ceiling tile and insulation material which typically would need to be replaced, saving the insurance company MILLIONS of dollars.
Extreme smoke, ash and wind around the schools made breathing difficult, and risked re-contaminating the interior areas that were already cleaned. As we worked tediously for three straight weeks including weekends and holidays, the ash continued to rain down. We would clean and disinfect these rooms, but how do we prevent everything from going backwards? We sealed the rooms up and ran Hydroxyls. This created a slight positive pressure in the room and kept up with any potential intrusion of smoke odor.
Mother Nature created some excitement for us as well. We had a few hotspots reignite behind a two of the schools we were working on and we had to call the fire Department. At one school, we were actually in the brush with a hose putting out the smoldering leaves before the fire department arrived!
On November 29th, 2018 a storm that hit while we were cleaning Malibu High School created an active mudslide on the upper portion of the school causing us to “calmly” evacuate over 200 of our staff at 3:15 in the afternoon. When we came back to the school the next day, we found a category 3 situation that flooded 6 classrooms with mud and water that we needed to remediate as well.
- For equipment, we purchased every AFD west of the Mississippi we could find and relied on our relationships with Aramsco, Abatix, Sunbelt Rentals and Odorox to deliver everything required directly to the jobsites.
- Vehicles and manpower to move and set massive amounts of equipment, solution and supplies.
- Coordinating up to 210 people per school, with all trusted subs on the jobs, Cleaning Crews, Lift Work, STERAMIST, and our trusted sub-contractors for HVAC and carpet cleaning.
- Gyms, auditoriums, and rooms with high vaulted ceilings: Scissor Lifts, HEPA Vacuums, Ram Board, and Plywood.
- Cleaning of outdoor lockers and outside sheds, removing burned sheds and fencing on school campuses, flooding, raking and washing the sand in playground, extreme filth, infestations and hording issues at some of the schools. All had to be cleaned.
- Air, surface and PCB testing with clearance before students could go back to school.
- Bi-weekly certified payroll of almost 600 people, documentation, protocols, funding, accounting, insurance audits, and communication all had its challenges.
- The education and experience. The confidence going forward and what we can do.
- What it did on social media, all districts used Twitter and Facebook, local press releases and newspaper articles from schools and districts.
- The recognition and positive word of mouth from almost 600 people that worked with us to restore all these schools has had a major positive impact on our business and our community.
- The schools are the cleanest they have ever been.
- Now we are back to residential cleaning and we continually run into homeowners recognizing us from the school work, thanking us for our efforts. Community pride.
- Named Ventura County’s Small Business of the year by the SBA for our work with the Thomas Fire early 2018.
- By using STERAMIST Binary Ionization Technology in the Attics and open cavities in 37 Schools, we were also able to potentially save the insurance company Millions of Dollars due to not having to drop the ceilings and replace insulation.
- In both events, over 30,000 Students were displaced in the schools we touched.
- Total of 6 weeks of cleaning schools, employed over 600 people.
- Purchased 450 Air Scrubbers, rented 300 more, rented 200 Hydroxyls.
- Using STERAMIST Binary Ionization Technology in 37 Schools and potentially saving insurance Millions of dollars.
- Total revenue for school cleanings equaled $13.5 million dollars.