Since American Technologies Inc. (ATI) was established in 1989, we have made it our mission to help our clients recover from the most devastating natural and man-made disasters. When we were asked to come to the aid of Oaks Christian School in the aftermath of one of the largest conflagrations in California history, we knew we could rise to the challenge.
The Woolsey Fire ignited on Nov. 8, 2018. By the time it was brought under control, it had burned an incredible 96,949 acres and destroyed 1,643 structures — and it was only one of the fires that afflicted Los Angeles and Ventura County in November.
Thankfully, the fire did not reach the buildings at Oaks Christian School, located across the mountains from Malibu in Westlake Village, but the entire campus was affected by ash deposits scattered inland by the Santa Ana winds. The campus covers 500,000 square feet among five large buildings. It was clear that this was going to be a task of Herculean proportions.
Time Waits for No One
The project started before the Thanksgiving break, a few days after the Woolsey Fire took hold, when the school was closed under mandatory evacuation by the fire authority. School officials did not want to place students, staff and administration in hazardous conditions due to poor air quality and fallout from the nearby smoke and fire zones.
We were working against the clock to ensure that the campus was clean and safe in time for staff and students to return to school after the holiday. The first step was to try to estimate the cost in time and materials, while bearing in mind that these figures would have to be amended as the project progressed.
The industrial hygienist took air samples and tape-lift samples so that he could compile a protocol, but there was no time to waste, so we started cleaning the administration building surface areas while we waited for his report.
All of the exterior walkways, roof, and interior and exterior walls had to be washed and cleaned. The turf on the playing fields had to be raked and cleared, and the water and filters in the outdoor swimming pool were cleaned and disinfected. The entire campus is powered by a massive solar array on the roof of one of the main buildings. It was vital that we ensured that no dust was lurking under the panels waiting to be released by the wind. We power washed the walls and hosed and squeegeed every solar panel.
Striving for a Safe Environment
Cleaning the inside of each building brought its own challenges. We had to vacuum all the surfaces using HEPA vacuums, shampoo all the carpets, wipe down walls and clean all the desks. Hundreds of hydroxyl deodorizers and negative air machines (NAM) worked round the clock to clear the air of potentially toxic fine particles. Hydroxyl units attempt to eliminate odor molecules, bacteria, viruses, mold, VOCs and other chemicals. We laid about 300 sticky mats and 100 NAMs at all door thresholds and limited entranceways to better control the environment and ensure that dust, soot or ash are minimized for re-entering the buildings.
One of the main logistical problems was that we couldn’t get independent access to every part of the school. In many cases, members of staff from the school needed to be present to ensure that contents could be safeguarded. Student lockers had to be cleaned, and many rooms held expensive electronic or scientific equipment that had to be given special care and attention. We also had to be cognizant of the need to ensure that the personal belongings of staff and students were preserved and protected.
Sadly, the cleanup was also affected by the tragic shooting in the nearby Borderline Bar. There was a funeral service at the Cavalry Community Church, whose campus is immediately adjacent to Oaks Christian School, for a police officer who lost his life. There was a lot of press attention, and security was tight. Hundreds of people attended the service, which made the logistics of moving ATI workers a challenge. The sense of loss was palpable, and we tried our best to maintain a respectful distance while the community mourned.
One of the most difficult parts of the job was restoring the industrial roof-mounted HVAC system to curtail the amount of airborne contaminants inside the facilities. Every one of the 40 large air handlers had to be cleaned and all filters changed before the students returned to school after Thanksgiving. Then the HVAC air ducts had to be inspected and cleaned to ensure good air quality.
Commitment to a Full Recovery
In total, we had between 130 and 140 remediation technicians working for 12 hours a day, seven days a week for three weeks to restore the school to working order. Then we had 15 professionals work through the night for an additional five weeks on the vast network of air ducts.
Pre- and post-testing included random sampling of the structures to ensure safe indoor air quality. At the close of the project, the industrial hygienist made a follow-up visit and declared that the buildings were free of ash and that the air quality was high.
We are very proud of the achievements made by our remediation team whose dedication and hard work enabled the staff and students of Oaks Christian School to put this distressing event behind them and get on with the business of learning.
Jeff Moore is the executive vice president at American Technologies Inc., a national leader in restoration, environmental remediation and reconstruction. ATI is the nation’s largest family-owned restoration contractor with about 1,400 employees in 20 offices. Jeff has over 20 years of experience in contents restoration, environmental remediation (asbestos and mold) and construction related to fire, water and insurance-related damages in the residential and commercial fields.