LVUSD restores campuses after Woolsey Fire


On the evening of Nov. 8, 2018, a fire erupted in Woolsey Canyon near Simi Valley. This destructive wildfire, known as the Woolsey Fire, burned through 97,000 acres of land in Los Angeles, Malibu and the Ventura Counties, destroying 1,500 structures, killing three people and prompting the evacuation of 295,000 people from their homes.

According to CBS Los Angeles, although the cause of the fire is still unknown, its rapid spread and lack of containment can be attributed to the Santa Ana winds—the extremely strong and dry winds that begin inland and affect coastal Southern California. After eight tireless days of battling flames, the raging Woolsey Fire was completely contained.

When the fire initially ignited on Thursday, Nov. 8, many students and families in the Las Virgenes Unified School District (LVUSD) were asked to evacuate to a safer location. In an attempt to accommodate these families, all LVUSD classes were cancelled on Friday, Nov. 9, via a mass email from LVUSD Superintendent Dan Stepenosky. Since the fire was still ablaze and encroaching on the many students’ households, LVUSD cancelled school for the upcoming week—Nov. 12 through Nov. 16—leaving students with a two week break, including the days allocated for Thanksgiving break, before returning to school. According to LVUSD Superintendent Dan Stepenosky, safety measures were taken the week of Thanksgiving to ensure that all LVUSD campuses were structurally and environmentally sound.

“We brought in environmental specialists and hygienists, and we walked around all of our campuses the Monday after the fire was contained,” said Stepenosky. “Together, we developed the cleaning and testing protocol.”

This protocol entailed a multitude of techniques: surfaces were disinfected with wet wipes, carpets were cleaned with HEPA vacuums, walls were completely wiped down, 617 HVAC units were examined and all air filters were replaced entirely, according to Stepenosky. In regard to campus areas located outside, all playground equipment, athletic fields and the general exterior were hosed down.

LVUSD contacted ServPro to spearhead the restoration process according to Stepenosky. ServPro deployed roughly 200 workers to clean all LVUSD properties over the course of 12 days, including Thanksgiving. They also brought in 15 scissor lifts, so they could reach tough spots like gyms and larger spaces like multipurpose rooms.

“We were able to clean 1.2 million square feet in 12 days,” said Stepenosky. “They initially thought it would take a full 8 weeks.”

Even more, to guarantee that ServPro was doing their job to the fullest extent, LVUSD brought in a separate testing company to confirm that all classrooms and buildings were safe for students and faculty. As for the actual safety tests, LVUSD conducted three: one air test looking for particulate matter, one air test looking for Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and one tape test to detect dust, ash and particles.

“A special tape was placed around surfaces in each classroom, and then it was taken to a lab for testing,” said Stepenosky. “If there was 2% or more of particulate matter on the tape, the entire space was re-cleaned. Several other local districts used a 20% standard, making our standards 10 times higher.”

Aside from the physical restorative measures taken to ensure all campuses were safe and ready to welcome students back after break, LVUSD schools have offered counseling services to aid those affected by the Woolsey Fire.

“Staff and students continue to heal in the aftermath of this devastating fire,” said Calabasas High School Principal CJ Foss. “Many are still displaced and emotionally fragile; we continue to offer counseling and support for students in need [and intend to do so for as long as necessary].”

Although this natural disaster has been a discomforting and unfortunate experience for many people, it has allowed the many communities affected to come together as one for the benefit of others. The silver lining is small, but in scary times like these, focusing on positivity can help relieve some of the fear and suffering.

“We all understand what matters, and that’s helping and taking care of each other,” said Stepenosky. “People reached out to each other, asked how they could help and really stepped up.”

All LVUSD schools are now up and running in the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire, but the intense cleaning processes preceding their reopenings were far from easy. However, the immense effort and dedication to restoring schools and contributing to those who lost their homes has been upstanding and encouraging.

“For the vast majority, students and families have shown tremendous empathy, understanding, and an outpouring of generosity for the victims,” said Foss. “I’m continually heartened by the generosity of the Calabasas and Las Virgenes community who has risen from the ashes like a Phoenix of hope and healing.”