Rising from the Ashes
Guest Blog By: Bill Hatch, Director of Operations – DKI Member Company, ASR Property Restoration
2018 was a historic year for ASR Property Restoration. As our base business was already exploding at a double-digit rate, the largest catastrophic event in our history occurred. For ASR, this event involved two of the largest wildfires in California history.
As a result, we expanded our expertise into cleaning schools after wildfires, making us heroes to our local school districts, its parents, and our community. With a full-time staff of 70 professionals, ASR restored, cleaned, deodorized, and/or set equipment in 68 schools within five school districts that were damaged from these two separate wildfires. These fires were responsible for displacing over 30,000 students from the schools in which we worked. In order to handle the magnitude of these jobs under very critical time constraints we employed more than 600 people, and used a total of over 1,000 air scrubbers and over 500 hydroxyl generators.
We completed the work ahead of schedule and only seven to twelve school days were lost throughout the entire restoration process. In total, the work on all 68 schools was performed in six weeks with the same scope and strategy, saving the insurance carrier over $3 million. The total combined revenue for all school work was $14.2 million.
The Thomas Fire
The Thomas Fire started on December 4, 2017 and lasted longer than a month before reaching full containment on January 12, 2018. Fueled by strong Santa Ana winds and dry conditions, it burned 281,893 acres, consuming more than 1,000 structures throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and led to devastating mudslides in Montecito, killing 17 people and destroying dozens of homes. The Thomas Fire concluded the nation’s costliest year of wildfires, totaling more than $10 billion in damage. According to CAL FIRE, approximately $177 million was spent battling the Thomas Fire alone.
All the damages from the Thomas Fire occurred within 15 to 30 minutes north of ASR’s 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 to 30 classrooms, as well as, libraries, cafeterias, bathrooms and offices. We immediately requested that a third-party environmental professional be retained to help write the protocol. As soon as we assessed the first school, we were asked to look at the rest of the schools within 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 though, we received a call from the risk assessment group for the entire Santa Paula School District mentioning that there were 10 additional impacted schools in Ojai which needed immediate attention. Each of these additional schools was more than twice the square footage of those we were working on in Santa Paula. Each had basketball gyms with 35-foot ceilings, auditoriums with performance stages and crow’s nests. Protecting the hardwood gym floors and being able to bring in lifts would require us to lay down Ram Board and plywood. We approached each school within both districts with a plan in place.
Each plan ran very smoothly and the staff members at the schools were thrilled. We successfully completed 13 schools and set equipment only in another 11 for $3.5 million in three weeks, allowing 7,824 students and teachers to return 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, also spread by the Santa Ana winds, started on November 8, 2018 in Woolsey Canyon near the boundary between Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The fire burned 96,949 acres of land, destroying 1,643 structures, killing three people, and prompting the evacuation of more than 295,000 residents. Hundreds of homes in Malibu were destroyed or damaged on both sides of Pacific Coast Highway, all within 15 to 30 minutes south of ASR’s office.
Job and Scope
While the Woolsey Fire was still burning, we received a familiar call from our contacts at the VCOE (Ventura County Office of Education) and the risk assessment group. They were very pleased with our work in the Ojai and Santa Paula School Districts a few months prior and wanted us to inspect damages to the Oak Park and Conejo Valley School Districts, which had nearly 40 schools. The best part was they didn’t even entertain the idea of retaining any other contractor for the job.
The individual scope varied from full cleaning and deodorization, to horizontal surfaces or equipment only. These schools were larger than those we cleaned earlier in the year, and we were given just two weeks to get the 23,522 students, teachers and staff back to class.
Just like the last event, as we were starting in Oak Park and Conejo Valley, we received another call. The Santa Monica\Malibu Unified School District had been referred to us by a very satisfied General Adjuster working for VCOE. They needed four schools with 2,000 students displaced in Malibu, cleaned with the same full scope, except no deodorization, and all refrigeration systems cleaned as well.
In total, we had three weeks to clean and set equipment in 40 schools within three districts and get almost 25,522 students and staff back to school.
Strategy and Challenges
Time and manpower were our biggest challenges following both wildfires. ASR has an average of 70 full-time employees, so we knew hiring more staff would allow us to complete the jobs within the promised time frame without decimating our work already in progress. The Thomas Fire, alone, would require us to hire about 50 people for the work requested from the Santa Paula and Ojai School Districts. We originally considered temp services but instead decided to offer the great paying jobs to family, friends and other people from the community who were affected by this devastating fire. Through social media and word of mouth, we successfully advertised prevailing wage jobs and spread the word.
Several months later, when the Woolsey Fire hit, and we signed 44 schools, we simply duplicated our past efforts and called our temporary hires who assisted us during the Thomas Fire. We not only asked if they wanted to work again, but also if they could help spread the word to family and friends. This time, our social media efforts really took off in our community. Retired firemen, individual contractors, parents of students of the impacted schools, and others all responded to help with the recovery efforts in any way they could. We had people from all walks of life. We even had a family that had lost their home in the Paradise Fire the week prior in Northern California that saw our post on Facebook and drove 400 miles south to work for us and capitalize on great prevailing wage earnings. 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 who we hired to help; they wanted to be there, and it was beyond touching.
During the Woolsey Fire, ASR was able to hire over 350 people, in addition to the 70 we had on staff and 200 we retained from a temp service. We also reached out to other restoration companies and we were able to bring in four additional project managers to help run some of the schools. By the time we were ready to work, we had over 600 workers willing to help get the 24,000 students and staff back to school.
We broke the labor force up into teams of four and assigned classrooms to each group to spend roughly 60 to 90 minutes cleaning each room before moving on to the next. We followed this crew up with a “detail crew” allotting an additional hour to allow two sets of eyes on each room. This crew handle any details that weren’t up to our standards or just missed. Air scrubbers ran during the cleaning and HVAC cleaning took place simultaneously.
Smoke odor in the air and porous materials were also challenges we encountered. While we certainly put hydroxyls to use, we only had an average of four days per school to get in and out with all tasks completed. Since these typically need to run for four to five days in order to truly have an effect, we had to come up with a better solution.
SteraMist is known for its disinfecting capabilities, but it also has been known to have a tremendous effect on smoke odor with the additional benefit of a 6-log kill of infectious organisms in that room. This would cut down on germs, potentially decreasing illnesses among the teachers and students, and we would be leaving the rooms cleaner than they’ve ever been.
The adjuster agreed, so SteraMist 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.
Our other challenge mentioned – 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 could we prevent everything from going backwards? We sealed the rooms, created a slight positive pressure differential, and ran the hydroxyls, to keep up with any potential intrusion of smoke odor.
In addition to these challenges, Mother Nature created some excitement.
While we were working, we had a few hotspots reignite behind two of the schools and we had to call the fire department. At one school, we became firefighters putting out the smoldering leaves with garden hoses before the fire department arrived!
Then a large rain storm hit while we were cleaning Malibu High School that 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 returned the next day, we found a category 3 situation that flooded six classrooms with mud and water. We needed to remediate these rooms immediately, in addition to our remaining scope of work.
- Locating and obtaining enough equipment to cover the scope of work. We purchased every air filtration device (AFD) we could find west of the Mississippi, 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 6 crews, cleaning up to 6 schools at the same time with up to 210 people per school, vaulted ceiling lift work, SteraMist, and our trusted sub-contractors for HVAC and carpet cleaning.
- Cleaning of outdoor lockers and sheds, removing burned sheds and fencing on school campuses, flooding, raking and washing the sand in playground, extreme filth, infestations and hoarding issues at some of the schools. All had to be cleaned.
- Lack of master key at schools to unlock and lock all doors daily.
- 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.
- The education and experience. The confidence going forward and what we can do.
- What it did on social media – all school districts used Twitter and Facebook to share local press releases and newspaper articles.
- The recognition and positive word of mouth from almost 600 people who worked with us to restore these schools has had a major positive impact on our business and our community.
- The schools are the cleanest they have ever been.
- Community pride – Now we are back to residential cleaning and we continually run into homeowners recognizing us from the school work, thanking us for our efforts.
- ASR was named Ventura County’s Small Business of the Year by the Small Business Administration (SBA) for our work with the Thomas Fire in early 2018.
- By using SteraMist Binary Ionization Technology in the attics and open cavities 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 displaced students were returned to the schools we touched.
- Total of 6 weeks of cleaning schools, employed over 600 people.
- We purchased a total of 450 air scrubbers, rented 600 more, and rented over 500 hydroxyls.
- Total revenue for school cleanings equaled $14.2 million.