Editor’s Note: In December, the Ventura Ranch Kampgrounds of America (KOA) Holiday in Santa Paula, Calif., fell victim to the Thomas Fire, losing more than 20 buildings. The Thomas Fire would go on to become California’s largest recorded wildfire, burning 281,893 acres and destroying 1,063 structures, according to CalFIRE. Woodall’s Campground Management (WCM) recently checked in with Scott Cory, the owner of the 148-site campground for the past 8 years, to get an update on how recovery efforts are going at the park. Below is our edited conversation.
WCM: To start, where are you at now, have you made any progress rebuilding the park after the devastating Thomas Fire?
Cory: We had over 20-plus structures burn down. The fire started almost four months ago and to date we have not been able to clean up the debris. We’re going back and forth with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and also another group called Cal/OSHA, which is the state’s division of occupational safety and health. We’ve got a ton of debris removal to take care of because of all the structures, and there are over 1,000 structures burnt in Ventura County.
So, we are waiting for approval from FEMA or Cal/OSHA to clean it up. We are not sure if they’re going to do it yet. That’s my biggest concern. They said they were going to, we filed all the paperwork, but there’s some back and forth on whether they’re going to do it or not. Eventually I’ll have to make the decision to switch over and hire a private contractor to come and do it if nothing happens.
WCM: How much will it costs to bring in a private contractor?
Cory: All I know is that I have been told that the average cleanup per home in Ventura County has been over $100,000. Most of that cost, officials have told me, is because of hazardous materials. The burn is considered hazardous material and the way it goes into the dump, everything gets blanketed so to speak. That’s where most of the cost is.
I’m a little worried because they believe the campground will be more expensive due to the amount of structures we have.
WCM: I know KOA has offered to help with the recovery effort, what have they been doing to assist you so far?
Cory: KOA has been very supportive in providing support including expertise to help me navigate this uncharted area. I have received tremendous support from my fellow franchise owners, including Todd Winegar, from Kingman KOA Journey in Kingman, Ariz., who offered to bring his tractors out to help clean up and the Bae’s from Visalia/Sequoia National Park KOA Journey in Visalia, Calif., who sent over 10 pounds of Alaskan King Crab to share with the Ventura Ranch team. There are KOA volunteers ready to jump into the clean up efforts and campers from our local community on stand by anxious to help bring back their family campground.
WCM: What does this do for your 2018 season? Are you going to still be able to open? What’s the campground going to look like if you do open?
Cory: Well, what we have is 148 total sites — some of the sites where we have no structures we’ve been able to rebuild those already. We have about 25-30 sites up and operating, and completely full with long-term guests. That’s helped our financial performance at this point.
We’re still cleaning up. We try to do a little bit every day of cleaning up sites that do not have structures, because those are the areas we cannot touch. I’m expecting if we get clearance in the next 30 days to clean up we will probably have 80% of the campground back up and operating by the first of August.
WCM: Did you have procedures or plans in place for a disaster like this? How did you manage evacuating the residents at the park?
Cory: We do have an evacuation plan that’s in place. We followed it very well. Every single guest was evacuated with no injury. Unfortunately, we were close to the epicenter of the fire. When one of our work campers saw the fire up on the hill, within 15 minutes it hit the campground. That was because we had 60 mph winds at that time and so it didn’t take much time to come down.
Some of the guests told me that when they were leaving the flames were coming over their RV. The fire department was there, but I don’t think they expected what they found, how bad the fire was and how quickly it was moving.
WCM: After you were evacuated, obviously as a business owner you’re trying to keep tabs on your business. What was that like for you? How easy was it to get information? How did you get information?
Cory: For the first 10 days we were not allowed access to the campground. It had to do with downed power lines and things like that. There’s a satellite operation, a naval satellite operation down the street from us and one of the gentlemen I know has clearance to get through and he was able to give us reports about the campground.
When I first saw the campground, I was devastated. It was worse than I expected. We’re surrounded by orchards, lemon groves. I always hoped and expected that the lemon groves would protect us. Actually, most of the lemon groves are still standing, but the winds were so strong the embers were able to relocate at the campground.
WCM: Once you were allowed back, how did you go about assessing the damage? Did your insurance company help with that?
Cory: I called my insurance carrier when the fire was blazing and reported the claim. Not too long after that they had an adjuster on the property with me reviewing the situation. They’ve been good to work with.
WCM: Looking back, is there anything you wish you had in place when the fire hit or something you wish you had done differently before the fire?
Cory: I would say if I look back, although I had reasonable insurance, when I look back I wish I would have certainly increased all the coverages a lot more. I have to say I didn’t realize that I needed to update my coverages as often as I should have. I was always honest about what I told the insurance company. What I paid for each building and other things.
I didn’t know I was supposed to update the coverages so much. I’ve actually asked KOA if they would like me to talk in a workshop and share my experiences at the next convention , and what I would do differently. I’m happy to do that.
WCM: What is a piece of advice you can give to other owners that may face a situation like yours in the future? How do you start recovering from this type of disaster?
Cory: I’m definitely still recovering. I think what’s helped me, immediately I started writing down all the different types of vendors I needed to connect with. The kind of steps I needed to do to have a recovery plan. By that I mean, I actually wrote down electrical, sewer, water and landscape needs. I just started to write down all the issues and started to fill in the blanks of the people I needed to contact and things like that, which included all the government associations too.
WCM: California had a bad fire season in 2017 and it’s dry still in some areas. Are you concerned about this happening again?
Cory: Fires don’t happen very often in our area I think because we have so many citrus trees around, they act as a barrier. So, am I worried about it again? Of course. Will I be better prepared? Absolutely. It’s not going to deter me from building the business again.