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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.

“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.” ZAC COPPER, cofounder and chief marketing officer for Northbay Maintenance in Petaluma, said the fires have increased his company’s workload by 500%

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.”

This went on and on until each of the more than 10,000 bottles had been cleaned.

As with work at any winery, the type of cleaning products used has to be regulated in order not to contaminate the product. Ruhl said bleach and airborne chemicals were off limits.

At Hanna Winery in the Alexander Valley, damage was sustained in last year’s Kincade Fire.

“Inside there was a pervasive smoky smell,” Chris Hanna, president of the winery, said. “We hired a cleaning company to come in and clean top to bottom. There was ash everywhere. Every utensil, anything that was sitting out, all the display items, all were cleaned. The soft goods were not savable.”

Soft goods include rugs, fabric covered chairs, and couches. At a hotel or residence, bedding and clothing are other types of soft goods.

The work by trained restoration technicians is much more involved and quite a bit different than how a house or commercial property is routinely cleaned. Sometimes restoration company employees wear what looks like space suits, other times an N95 mask, gloves and eyewear are sufficient.

Soot also creeps into areas that aren’t visible. Duct work is common, and is part of cleaning the HVAC system.

“Duct cleaning involves using high pressure air to flush the ducting. The air and any debris is captured using HEPA filters. We do not use brushes or mechanical methods to clean because of the risk of damage to the ducting. We also change the filters, clean the return air ducts and the HVAC unit,” Keith explained. “One of the big things is we clean the air. When you smell smoke, you are really smelling carbon.”

While restoration work is similar throughout the industry, each company does things a little differently.

Copper said, “For duct work cleaning we seal all the registers and then open them up one at a time and clear the lines out using a negative air pressure like a vacuum. Once the register is cleared, we seal that one and open a new one up and do the same process again.”

NorthBay Environmental uses a coding system similar to what insurance companies employ in order to calculate the work needed to be done.

“Smoke damage cleanup costs are determined by unit costs set by insurance companies. Each insurance company has slight differences in coverage and costs but they all use an industry standard estimating software,” Keith said. “Most of the time we estimate using square foot pricing for structure cleaning, carpet cleaning, insulation removal and replacement, HVAC cleaning and pressure washing.”

At Northbay Maintenance, commercial cleanup costs are based on square footage, extent of damage, number of hours to do the work, and whether it is solely the building or contents as well that get remediated.

“Typically, most insurance is separated by structure and content coverage. Structure is the building itself—think walls, floors, ceilings, and anything attached to it like countertops. Contents would be whatever fell out if you flipped a building upside down—think desks, chairs, tables, rugs, etc.,” Copper said. “Most commercial buildings have insurance for both structure and content coverage, but those are the two main categories we typically have to break out as one carrier may be covering the structure and another the contents.”

Every item is cleaned or discarded, every inch of interior surface is wiped clean. The soft goods like carpet and upholstery aren’t always salvageable.

“They took down all of our blinds on windows. They took them outside and cleaned every bit of them,” Healdsburg School Principal Andy Davies said of Northbay Maintenance Inc. The K-8 school mostly had soot and smoke issues from the Kincade Fire. “The classrooms were ridiculous. They took everything out of the cubbies. It was unbelievable how thorough they were. We were the first school to open because of their quick response.”

Regulating the restoration industry

The Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification, based in Las Vegas, certifies technicians in more than 25 areas including carpet cleaning, fire and smoke damage restoration, building moisture thermography, and odor control.

“We write industry approved standards and created exam criteria off those standards,” explained Kim Stone, director of operations for IICRC. Those standards are then certified by the American National Standards Institute. The only certifications that states mandate are for mold and asbestos.

Technician certification by IICRC is good for one year, so many workers are going to classes regularly. The agency’s website has a list of certified techs and businesses employing them. Stone said the industry is always evolving, with technology changing, new ways to clean being developed, and information about chemicals updated.

The type of damage dictates the restoration procedures.

“For hard surfaces like walls, floors and ceilings we use a method that is completely dry, it doesn't use liquids,” said Mark Kowal, a San Jose-based project manager with Emergency Response Group. He said ERG has an office in Napa and has done extensive work the last few years in the Wine Country because of the wildfires. ERG works throughout the state.

In Northern California, 95 percent of the jobs involve smoke damage. “We use a chemical sponge and start wiping every square inch of the property. They are designed to remove soot and smoke from surfaces.”

While workers are scrubbing, air filtration systems are likely to be running to clean the air. The most common apparatuses are air scrubbers, ozone generators, and hydroxyl generators.

At the end of the day, Keith said, “I look at my business as always helping people, saving people. That is what brings a smile to my face. I restore their house back to way should be or their commercial building.”

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