Surviving the Firestorm: California Hoteliers Share Their Stories

    Silverado Resort Napa

    John Evans (General Manager) – Fighting the Flames

    In collaboration with Cal Fire, on Sunday October 8th at 9:15 PM, we were called upon to evacuate our fully occupied resort. Understanding our resort is spread out over 330 acres, the team set out two by two to knock on every guest room door with a clear message to deliver, “Evacuate immediately and meet at a central location.” Another team manned the phones to call every guest room to provide the same message. By 10:15 PM the guests had been evacuated to a nearby grocery store parking lot where they were provided options to depart the county. The Silverado team members performed very well under a tremendous amount of stress. No one was hurt in the evacuation and we credit that to a well-executed plan by our team and its leadership.

    With the exception of our Director of Security, the Resort Manager and myself, all remaining team members were evacuated. At this time the fires were coming down the Vaca Mountains at 220 feet per second and tossing ambers forty feet in front creating a wave of fire fueled by 40 mph winds. The fires were all around our resort, but we prioritized the fire coming up Milliken Creek as the most threatening to the 140-year-old historic mansion that serves as our registration area and lobby. One of our engineers, Roy Powell showed up unannounced to assist. He said that while at home in Lake Berryessa he heard on his radio that the resort was in trouble and, motived by dedication, he left his family and drove over to help.

    We all went to work fighting the fire by first placing a residential hose and commercial sprinkler on the roof of the mansion to keep it wet. By now the fire was 40 feet from the mansion and coming up the hillside of Milliken Creek. We used every fire extinguisher we had, which made very little impact. We dug a fire break at the back of the mansion on the creek side and used what we learned was the best weapon against the flames – water. It took us approximately two hours to get control of the fire, which eventually restarted three times and had to be put out each time.

    Remembering that the hillsides were on fire, and the green space around the resort was on fire, we looked across the street and it appeared our spa was on fire. We loaded up our carts with 5-gallon buckets of water drawn from our ponds on the golf course and raced over to the spa to find that the three houses on the backside of the spa were what the flames were consuming, not the spa. While there we moved three collectors’ cars to a safe location and, in the middle of this effort, the four giant palm trees in front of the spa burst into flames as the embers lit the dry tinder that lies under the palm fronds. They looked like large roman candles burning and there was nothing we could do to help them.

    Throughout the week, we continued to put out over 30 small fires. We worked in shifts of two conducting fire and security patrols 24/7 around the resort. We had a plan to evacuate ourselves if it looked like we were going to be overran.  We lost a bridge, portions of our driving range, a satellite housekeeping office and breakroom. We did not lose or allow to be damaged our 140-year-old mansion.

    In the coming week we assisted our neighbors and our friends in the community as they walked miles to go through the police blockade to check on the condition of their home. Many walked up to an empty charred lot where their beautiful home once stood. Some came away elated as their home was sparred, and they found a new reason to be thankful.

    While a terrible disaster, in the aftermath there was, and still is, an air of appreciation for the support that was extended from friend to friend and stranger to stranger. The community bonded and came together to rebuild.

    The Silverado Resort is fully recovered and considerably improved since the fires. Scrubbed from top to bottom, fully painted and with several key areas renovated, the Silverado Resort has received numerous accolades for its service and performance. We attribute this success to our ownership and the 500+ associates who have a shared goal to make the Silverado Resort the best in Northern California.

    The Westin Verasa, Napa

    Don Shindle (General Manager) – New Life Amid Destruction

    On the evening of Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, the wildfires broke out in Napa County and shortly after our hotel lobby was filled with locals that were being evacuated. The hotel was already close to selling out, but we still had a few rooms left to sell, which we offered to the evacuee families. Since we didn’t have enough inventory to offer everyone that showed up in the middle of the night, our night audit team did the best they could and offered the evacuees blankets, pillows, and other items to accommodate the guests in our lobby.

    The next morning, Governor Brown declared a state of emergency for Napa, and we had a heavy departure day as most our in-house guests decided to leave town. Our front office and sales team worked diligently to help relocate all our in-house guests to neighboring communities that were safe. The team also worked around the clock and took all incoming calls from concerned future guests and handled all cancellations for the next few months. Our engineering team went straight to work and replaced all carbon filters in the public areas of the hotel to control the air quality. They also closed off all exterior input for the entire building to prevent any air from coming inside. We handed out face masks for all our guests and employees and offered humidifiers for all our staff.

    By the second day, the hotel was filled with over 60 rooms of evacuee families, in addition to several employees that were evacuated, first responders from Cal Fire and PG&E workers. All evacuees received an affordable rate and were offered an extended stay for as long as we could accommodate. Our front office and accounting teams worked diligently with the insurance companies, FEMA and evacuees to ensure everything was being taken care of and that the out of pocket cost for the evacuees were at a minimum. The restaurant in the lobby, Bank Café & Bar created a special dining menu for the PG&E & Cal Fire teams to ensure they weren’t exceeding their per diem for meals. We also offered complimentary stays for a group of ten field workers that were going to stay out in tents on a rainy night.

    A few evacuee families we hosted during this time were local business owners, public figures in the community and we also specifically hosted a family that had children in wheelchairs. One couple, Neil Bason and PJ Fairbairn, arrived at our hotel on October 11th after being evacuated from their home on Mount Veeder. Bason and Fairbairn were expecting a child any day and had planned an at-home birth. The couple spoke with me and Nathan Baslaw, Rooms Division Manager, who supported the idea of them having their child in the hotel and made arrangements with their midwives. On October 17th, they welcomed Elisabeth Bason to the world in Suite 1057 of The Westin Verasa, Napa. A few days after baby Elisabeth was born, we put together a basket with numerous items including baby clothes, toys and books and delivered it to their room.

    During the time that we’ve had evacuee families staying with us, we’ve done our best to make them feel at home and a part of our family. The first day it rained a few days after the fires broke out, we held a champagne toast in our lobby for all our evacuees. As Halloween approached, we purchased pumpkins, treats and supplies for the children of the evacuee families staying with us to decorate and enjoy. Later that month, we hosted a dinner for the Cal Fire and Incident Management Team 3, for about 100 people as an appreciation for their all challenging work and dedication. On Monday, November 6th, the hotel hosted a reception for all evacuee family members in the lobby. We provided appetizers, snacks and beverages, as well as an opportunity to relax and mingle. A month later, we hosted a tree lighting and decorating reception in the solera courtyard for the evacuee families, complete with appetizers, cookies, hot cocoa as well as wine and bubbles.

    We still had evacuee families living with us until recently when our final couple moved out in mid-July.

    The Eagle Inn, Santa Barbara

    Paul Bullock (Manager) – In the Mud

    Even though we were not in the immediate danger zone, The Eagle Inn was drastically affected by the Thomas Fire and subsequent debris flow. The fire swept through Ventura County and crested the coast hills that separate our two counties. Around December 6th, it was bearing down on Carpinteria and Montecito. The smoke driven by the wind towards Santa Barbara was so thick that you couldn’t go outside. Everything that was planned in town was cancelled – including all of our hotel reservations for that first weekend. We notified all our upcoming visitors that they probably shouldn’t come to Santa Barbara due to the smoky and dangerous conditions.

    We started getting evacuees from Ojai and Ventura. There was quite a large swath of mandatory evacuation area and an even bigger area for people to voluntarily leave. Many residents went North to Pismo Beach among other places. But we also started to get lots of calls. I saw that these people were in desperation. They didn’t know if their houses would be there next time they went home. I decided to only charge evacuees a third of our regular nightly rate, and people were appreciative. During their stay, evacuee guests talked to each other and shared information about what they witnessed.

    This went on for several days.

    Around December 10th, the fire got closer to Santa Barbara and we started to get more local refugees. This went on for a couple weeks, then people left to go home. We were completely empty, and I was wondering if payroll could be met. I had to choose which bills to pay and which to put off.

    Tourists started to slowly return. Then it rained, and the debris flow ensued. Back came the evacuees, so I lowered our rates again because I figured that helping my neighbors was the priority.

    We ended up housing two families for over two months. One lady was in an assisted living home and was bedridden. The other lady had been trapped up to her waist in the mud. Luckily, she was saved by her neighbor and fire fighters. She broke her leg during the incident, and her house was destroyed. The only possessions she had were the clothes on her back.

    I saw that many of the small, family owned, independent hotels in my area all tried to help the evacuees.

    So, what happened to The Eagle Inn? We lost a lot of money and are still trying to recover financially. The Thomas Fire really affected business in Santa Barbara, even 7 months post disaster. I’m hopeful that although the summer got off to a slow start, it will pick up again soon.

    Olea Hotel, Glen Ellen

    Sia Patel (Owner) – The Fine Print

    My husband, Ashish Patel, and I are the owners of Olea Hotel. The night of the fires, Sunday October 8th, we were at a concert in Oakland and arrived home to Sonoma around 1:00 AM. Immediately after we arrived home, we received a message from our after-hours call service that a guest smelled smoke on our property and directly following, we received a text message from our chef that said our little town of Glen Ellen was being evacuated. So, I jumped in the car and rushed to the hotel to see what was happening. As I was driving up Highway 12/Sonoma Highway and was turning towards our hotel, I could see red flames in the distance about a mile away. The road going north was already blocked by police. I turned towards the hotel and within minutes, heard the loud speakers of the sheriff’s cars asking residents to evacuate. I quickly parked at the hotel and noticed many guests were already packing and getting ready to leave. I went to each door, ensured all guests were aware of the evacuations and let guests know to go south away from the blocked roads. The guests were clearly shocked and unaware of what to do. I kept calm and made sure I stayed until all guests had left their rooms and the parking lot was empty. I thought about staying a bit longer, but the sheriff kept insisting that everyone had to leave. I rushed home and immediately started to try to find alternate accommodations for our guests south of us. Unfortunately, many hotels were already booked. The rest of my night was spent looking out of our windows at flames approaching our home, trying to answer calls from guests, and trying to figure out next steps.

    Two guest cottages out of our five total buildings were burned in addition to the entire perimeter of our property. The perimeter areas included: gardens, fencing on all four sides, large retaining wall, significant areas of mature landscaping, a hot tub area, and an outdoor firepit area. There was also smoke damage in most of the guest rooms and common areas. Luckily our primary buildings, including the lobby building, primary guest rooms building, and our newest addition were all saved by sprinklers and fire fighters actively saving our property. The entire neighborhood was also hit very hard with most homes around us completely destroyed.

    We were closed from October 8, 2017 to the end of August 2018, when we reopened with a completely remodeled property, including all guest rooms and common areas. We also took this opportunity to add a new pool and hot tub area. All outdoor areas have brand new landscaping, fencing, furniture, etc.

    One of the biggest take-aways for us as a business and as sole proprietors is to know your insurance policies and particularly what’s included and excluded. Read every single page of your policy exclusions and figure out why they exist and how you can get supplementary coverage, if available. There are many items listed in fine print, which you may assume are included, but never take anything for granted. Every policy is different. Make sure to clear up any confusion with your broker or your policy underwriter. Be sure to also know your broker. Someone you have met and who has seen your property in person is much more likely to be your advocate, understand the scope of coverage, and help you when a claim occurs.

    Safari West, Santa Rosa

    Aphrodite Caserta (Director of Marketing & Communications) – Recovery and Resurgence

    While Safari West largely survived the October 2017 wildfire devastation, unfortunately, it did not mean that things were back to normal for several months. Many of our staff were among those who lost a home or were otherwise heavily impacted by the disaster. Our first concern was to provide information to our team on how to register for Red Cross and FEMA. We were trying to get everyone back to work as soon as possible, but there were many obstacles in the road ahead, such as issues with air quality, the roads, power supply, and other factors. Our satellite reservation office called all of our guests and refunded and suspended all existing reservations. We provided daily updates on our website and social media channels.

    Our lodging did not reopen until March 1, 2018. While the camp survived intact, the damage caused by smoke and other fire-related factors took some time to repair. Operation of the restaurant, gift shop, and other departments were largely contingent on when we were able to get tours up and running again. We were doing everything we could to get Safari West back to normal. In the meantime, our hearts went out to all of our employees. We wanted all of our team back, but more than that, wanted to ensure everyone was safe.

    The real story, says Peter Lang, Founder of Safari West “is watching the recovery and resurgence.” First seeing the debris removed help lift his heart, now he marvels at the new construction that is popping up along Mark West Springs Road where Safari West is located. “Seeing the neighborhoods starting to come back to life, that’s just terrific. The resurgence of nature, I think that is really a strong, strong point.”

    Kimberly Robertson (Safety Coordinator) – Lessons Learned

    Within the 15 minutes we had to clear out, we had 100 guests that had to be safely evacuated. We were well prepared from all our drills; however, one of the things that came to light as far as evacuation goes is the need for everyone to know multiple escape routes and designated meeting areas. We had staff members trying to get to us to aid in the evacuation and were fortunate that there were people down the way to tell them how to get to us using side roads. All of our drills had involved scenarios where we had light, more time and access to more information and staffing. The night of the fires, we had limited access to all of the above. Making sure to have flashlights and batteries on standby for what could be an extended period without power will make a big difference during the initial emergency and during the aftermath.

    Anne Ward Ernst (Writer & Editor) – Saving the Safari

    As the Tubbs Fire raged toward Safari West, Lang found he couldn’t leave his preserve undefended. What he did, and what he was honored for by the American Red Cross who gave him the 2018 Animal Rescue Hero Award in April, was put out fires on the preserve that is home to nearly 1,000 animals. And he did it alone.

    Using garden hoses, forklifts, and anything he could get his hands on, Lang – who was 76 at the time and has since celebrated a birthday — spent the night of October 8th and the following morning moving from one spot to another dousing fires that threatened animals and structures on the 400-acre property.

    “I wasn’t everywhere, parts of it burned,” Lang said. “I was protecting the animals, protecting Safari West, doing the best I could with the tools I had available, and I do not confuse expertise with luck. I was very, very lucky.”

    There were a record number of submissions for the Animal Rescue Hero Award this year – more than 75 – and Lang was chosen by a committee of business leaders and residents whose criteria was based on emotional appeal and impact, extraordinary compassion and leadership, level of health and safety risks, and diversity, said Kathryn Hecht, spokesperson for the American Red Cross Northern California Coastal Region.