Good Odds for Fire-Damage Restoration

In October 2003, massive wildfires caused tremendous damage across Southern California. One of these fires damaged the Valley View Casino in Valley Center, Calif., about nine miles north of Escondido.

Gamblers living in southeast Texas can drive fewer than 50 miles to play slot machines. Britt Borel, David LeJeune and about 40 employees of C&B Services Disaster Kleenup traveled nearly 1,600 miles last fall on a very different - and dangerous - kind of junket.

In October 2003, massive wildfires caused tremendous damage across Southern California, reducing an area the size of Rhode Island to ash, destroying 2,500 homes and displacing more than a million people. One of these fires damaged the Valley View Casino in Valley Center, Calif., about nine miles north of Escondido. To remedy the situation, casino officials contacted Port Neches, Texas-based C&B Services.

When the call came Borel, C&B's vice president, and LeJeune, the company's national catastrophe manager, caught a flight to California to assess the damage and decide what resources and people were needed to get the job done. It was about eight hours from the time the call came in to when the duo landed at an airport 150 miles from the casino. The local airport was closed because of smoke and fire damage.

A highway department crew stationed three blocks from the casino escorted Borel and LeJeune to the site. There was concern that high winds might push the blaze toward the casino, and the extra precautions the highway crew took to keep the C&B's employees from getting trapped in the path of the fire did not go unnoticed.

It was a sobering sight for LeJeune.

"I'd never been in a wildfire," he said, "and it was frightening to see so many acres burning. We are accustomed to dealing with hurricanes, tornadoes and localized fires, but this was an amazing sight that you can't fully comprehend seeing it on TV."

When the two arrived at the casino, they saw the fire had burned through an exterior wall causing fire, smoke, soot and water damage that covered nearly 75,000 square feet. In fact, the fire was still burning on the property, which made safety a critical issue at all times during the job.

Obviously, business interruption is a serious matter for a casino. In this case, Valley View was facing massive losses every day that visitors weren't there putting money in the machines. After the damage assessment, the C&B Services team and Managed Response, Inc., met with casino managers to develop a game plan.

Borel and LeJeune contracted employees from a local company affiliated with Disaster Kleenup International until the C&B catastrophe team could make the trip from Texas. When they did arrive, they brought one 18-wheel semi-tractor trailer filled with equipment and materials.

C&B developed a precise scope of work that called for extensive planning and scheduling because of the unique nature of the facility being cleaned. Removing debris was the first order of business, which took about half a day. Fire had damaged one 8-by-12-foot section of the casino's exterior wall, along with several slot machines. Inside, the team concentrated on the extensive smoke damage and soot that covered virtually every surface in the 75,000-square-foot casino, from the floor to the rafters and everything in between.

A 20-by-60-foot scaffold was constructed to enable workers to clean air ducts, ceiling tiles and air returns at the top of the structure. When one area was completed, the scaffold would to be torn down and rebuilt in another spot. Electricians also used the scaffold to facilitate their work. The C&B team also brought in 20 air scrubbers and four ozone machines to clean the air.

One of the more crucial and time-consuming aspects of the recovery process was the taking apart and cleaning of all 1,150 slot machines in the casino. That task had to be coordinated with the scaffold position changes, so one would not interfere with the other.

The gaming tables also received special care, with two to three hours spent to clean and remove the acid-based soot from each station.

One of the first areas to be cleaned was the casino's surveillance room, with its 60-plus video monitors and related equipment. The computer room also got special attention because of the sensitive computers and surveillance cameras.

As it turned out, the computer room was at the opposite end of the casino from where most of the smoke damage had occurred, so a thorough air cleaning was all that was needed. The computer room had to be cooled down, a difficult task with no power. Portable lighting and generators were secured to power up the casino air conditioner for the cool-down. It was a challenge to find truck drivers willing to come to the casino for fear of getting trapped by the wildfires.

Workers were mindful of "hot spots" outside the casino: fires coming back to life every day, some within 500 yards of the casino. The local fire department was on standby 24 hours a day.

Working at a casino presented its own unique problems. Understandably, there were quite a few security issues. C&B officials met with the California Gaming Commission to get a clear understanding of the strict guidelines they had to follow since they were working around machines filled with the casino's money. Security put in place to monitor the team's comings and goings was also strict, and workers had to make sure they didn't block any security cameras or equipment. Initially, C&B employees had security escorts at all times, but that was relaxed to some extent after the company convinced casino and security officials that the restoration process was in danger of being slowed down.

Daily meetings between C&B and the casino's executive staff kept officials updated on the status of the cleanup. These communications played an important part in facilitating work in the high-security areas, and helped speed the recovery process. An outside expert's initial estimate was that it would take 23 days to get the casino in operation again. The C&B team completed the job in nine days, significantly reducing the financial losses Valley View suffered. Even after the casino reopened, C&B continued to work during slow times - 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. - to take care of minor damage and lingering smoke problems.

After the interior cleaning was complete, C&B power washed the exterior walls, parking lot and modular buildings that house administrative operations. Six buses used to transport patrons were cleaned and detailed. Thermal fogging was the final process, used to neutralize any and all remaining odors in the buildings and buses.

"There's no question this was a true team effort," C&B Services President Troy Crochet said. "Anyone who saw the damage that confronted our crew would be amazed that our people and the others who helped us could have gotten that facility up and running in nine days."

The next time members of the C&B catastrophe team decide to play the slots or take a run at the tables, it's safe to assume that Valley View will be on their minds.

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