Year after year of Northern California wildfires keep cleanup companies overly busy
Seeing that your business remains standing after fire rips through the area might mean time to celebrate, but there’s something to worry about.
Even with the walls and roof intact, there could be damage inside that to the untrained eye may look benign.
Smoke, water, soot, casading sprinklers—they all can leave behind significant damage that isn’t always obvious, including fine particles that often cannot be seen, but they are dangerous if inhaled.
As the Wine Country keeps experiencing wildfires, companies specializing in cleaning up and restoring damaged buildings are having a hard time keeping up with demand.
Just this year, the Glass Fire burned 67,484 acres and destroyed 1,555 structures. It was contained Oct. 20. The LNU Complex started in mid-August, charring 363,220 acres in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Solano and Yolo counties and leveling 1,491 buildings. Marin County was hit by the Woodward Fire in August; it burned 4,929 acres, with the loss of zero structures.
“With these fires the scope of them is unprecedented. The scope of damage is a lot bigger than Tubbs or Kincade; I would say two to three times,” said Zac Copper, cofounder and chief marketing officer for Northbay Maintenance in Petaluma.
Copper said the fires have increased his 12-year-old company’s workload by 500 percent. Most of the 35 employees are involved in making residential structures whole again. “In disasters like this it gets really, really crazy in terms of demand.”
When wildfires aren’t scorching the North Bay, commercial work represents about 30 percent of Northbay Maintenance’s work. That figure can escalate to 50% in a fire year. Between the 2017 Tubbs and 2019 Kincade fires his company did restoration work on more than 40 commercial structures.
“In non-fire seasons the biggest callouts we get are from some type of plumbing issue causing water damage on a property such as a sink overflowing or a backup. We also get a moderate amount of fire cleanup work from kitchens catching fire,” Copper said.
October brings a rise in business
In the first week of October, even before the Glass Fire was contained, he had 20 contracts lined up.
And as with Copper’s firm, with wildfires becoming the norm throughout California, it’s possible the workload for restoration companies will continue to rise. This year the number of structures lost has topped 9,200 in the more than 8,400 wildfires that have ripped through state, according to CalFire. This is the largest fire season in California’s history. In 2019, the Kincade Fire destroyed 374 structures and damaged 60, while the Tubbs Fire in 2017 reduced 5,636 buildings to ash and damaged 317.
NorthBay Environmental Inc. in Santa Rosa had about 40 jobs from the Tubbs Fire, and 80 in the Kincade. In early October the firm had given out 28 estimates to victims of the Glass Fire.
“The smoke damage restoration work represented close to 30 percent of my annual revenue in just two months over each of the last two years. I expect this year to be even larger,” said Dave Keith, owner/president of NorthBay Environmental. He did not provide specifics about revenues of the 12-year-old company that has 20 employees. “This fire that just came through is worse than all of them. There is more soot and ash around then even the Tubbs.”
Damage is not always obvious
Initially, it’s not uncommon for a property owner to think the damage isn’t significant when the building is still standing. Often, though, that is not the case.
“We thought we could do it ourselves—sweep it up, wipe it down and we would be good to go. After a day or two of doing that in isolated areas with key employees, we started to realize this was a bit more than thought it would be,” Ryan Ruhl, general manager of Darioush winery in Napa said. The winery was hit by the Tubbs Fire three years ago.
In came their insurance agent, who then contracted with the Napa office of Paul Davis Restoration to do the cleanup. Air, surface and water tests were conducted to determine contamination levels of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, volatile organic chemicals and other chemicals. It took at least two weeks to make the Silverado Trail property whole.
“It was one of those environments where they tackle one room at a time with air filtration and then work top to bottom,” Ruhl said. “In one of our wine cellars they went in there, sealed off the doors and pulled out one bottle of wine, cleaned it and the cavity it went in, and then put it back.”