Insurance Agent at Heart of Heartbreaking California Wildfire
Derek Ross has his hands full with the Woolsey Fire in Southern California for three reasons.
He’s an insurance agent with numerous clients affected, he’s the president of the board of a school district that’s had to close due to the blaze and he lives in a small town that has been devastated by the fire.
Ross, who had to evacuate with his family last week when the fire broke out, spending the night in their car because nearby hotels were booked up, has been busy lately.
“I’m living the experience and also working with my clients to help them out,” said Ross, president of Kulchin Ross Insurance Services LLC, a small agency in Tarzana with roughly 25 employees.
Wildfires in California have burned nearly a quarter-million-acres, destroyed more than 9,000 structures and caused 53 deaths.
The Camp Fire in Northern California’s Butte County is now considered the deadliest and the most destructive wildfire in state history. CalFire reports the blaze is 35 percent contained and has killed 51 people, burned 135,000 acres and destroyed more than 7,600 residences and 260 commercial structures. Another 15,000 structures remain threatened.
Resources on the fire include 5,615 firefighters, 630 engines and 23 helicopters.
The Woolsey Fire to the south in Ventura County has caused two deaths, has burned 97,620 acres and is 47 percent contained. It has destroyed 483 structures and threatens another 57,000, according to CalFire. Roughly 3,500 firefighters are working on the fire.
Ross has at least a dozen clients with homes in Malibu, a pricey beachside town where widespread damage has been reported.
“In Malibu we have multiple clients with homes that have burned,” Ross said.
Another of his clients is a condo association where at least three units will be considered total losses.
“Malibu has been destroyed,” Ross said, adding that he’s hearing reorts of more than 1,000 downed electrical poles and live wires on the ground in numerous spots. “It’s a mess.”
Ross’ home and his other occupation as president of Oak Park Unified School District is a short drive from Malibu though picturesque canyons that have now been razed by the fire.
“All the open space around me is dust,” Ross said.
The burnt brush in the canyons leads to another peril that Ross and the local community must keep a close watch on when the rainy season hits the state.
“We’re concerned about flooding now,” he said. “We’ve been doing soil inspections around our school sites and what we’ve found is the soil is really soft.”
The school district consists of one high school, a middle school, three elementary schools and a district office. All schools were closed on Friday and are set to remain closed through the end of the week continuing on through the Thanksgiving week holiday.
During a school board meeting on Tuesday night Ross and other board members had to inform parents in attendance that some of the school structures suffered minor property damage and there was a great deal of smoke and ash that penetrated the interior of the buildings.
The district has hired a third-party contractor to inspect campuses and clean areas that have suffered damage before school starts back up.
“Right now we’ve got teams scrubbing all of our campuses,” Ross said.
While fires still rage around the community, Ross hopes the worst is over.
As the fires erupted Thursday district officials scrambled to communicate with staff to stay at schools until all children were picked up.
Not long into the evening the alarms that went up turned into reality in areas like Oak Park, where at least 30 homes burned in the community of only 13,000.
“Within a few hours our community was being completely overtaken by a firestorm,” Ross said.
Evacuations started Thursday night. After Ross wrapped up his communications with fellow school officials, he fielded calls from affected clients then went to pick up his children who were with their grandparents only to find he was blocked from getting to them by a burning structure.
Later that night he and his family heeded a warning to evacuate their home.
“There was a lot on my mind that evening,” he said.
They headed to nearby Agoura Hills only to find no vacancies at hotels when they arrived.
The family camped in their car from about midnight to about 4 a.m., when they were able to head back home.
Countless fire trucks from battalions as far away as Montana now occupy the Oak Park community, and all around one can read signs made by kids and others thanking firefighters for their efforts, Ross said.
The community has been holding clothes drives, toothbrush drives, comb drives, and just about any kind of drive they can think of to help their neighbors.
“Right now our community is rallying around,” Ross said.