Escaping the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Fire. What I did, learned and would change.

Photo Credit: San Francisco Chronicle

We don’t expect it. We fear it. And we certainly, don’t ever want to take part personally in evacuating a hotel in any given situation. But what if, you’re in an rapid developing emergency like the one that began on the evening of October 8 in Sonoma county in and around Santa Rosa, CA? The night in which 200 acres of burning wildfires, progressed to 20,000 acres in an unprecedented amount of time due to wind and conditions.

So, how would you do if faced with the challenge of evacuating a hotel with a minute notice . . . or less?

As an event keynote speaker I attend 75 events per year, with about 90% requiring overnight travel in various places around the world. I have my fair share of reward points and quite accustomed to the hotel routines. Here is my personal account to what I experienced, as well as what I did right, wrong and will do differently going forward.

My timeline for October 8-9, 2017 happened to be:

October 8th:
* 6:00 pm land at San Francisco airport just after 6pm and commute via rental car to the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel in Santa Rosa, CA

* 8:50 pm (Approximately) arrive and check-in to Hilton Sonoma Wine Country unaware and uninformed of any fire or impending danger.

October 9th:
* 2:32 am
* Awoken by the vibration of my mobile phone ringing. I didn’t answer it. Voice mail buzzes. I decided to get up and check it quick as it was an odd time to be receiving a call.

* 2:33 am
* Frantic voice mail from my client for the event I’m to keynote the next morning. The venue (Luther Burbank Theater) is currently being evacuated due to rapid approaching fires, our event is cancelled.

* 2:34 am
* I call client and talk for 30 seconds. He tells me to get out and call him when I’m safe.
* I notice the smoke detector in room chirps as when it needs a new battery or has no power. Trying to turn on any light confirms no power.

* 2:35 – 2:36 am
* Looking out the window, I see only black. (I’m floor one, which in this case was half underground and half above ground).

* Throwing on the suit coat and jeans that were on the bed and slip on shoes not bothering to tie them. I open my hotel room door, it’s dark, the smell of smoke is apparent and I see the double fire doors to my right automatically shut at that exact moment. There is no alarm ringing of any sort.

Outside Hilton Sonoma Parking lot

Outside Hilton Sonoma Parking lot

* I run back in the room, close a bag that was partially unpacked by door, grab the phone, car keys, wallet and my briefcase by the door and run out. Leaving other stuff behind.

* 2:38 am +
* There was one other person in the hall doing the same thing. We both ran out a side door, which for me was exiting the hotel different from where I came in and put me in the parking lot in a spot a didn’t recognize – causing delay. The smoke was thick and I ran up stairs on the side of the building to another parking lot, I see other people leaving as well. Pushing the car remote button to find the car.

* The next 30 mins was most surreal trying to drive in thick smoke and not able to see signs. I thought I was leaving the parking lot but in reality had only driven into another of the parking lot. I had no idea where to go! I did find my way out of the hotel parking after a few attempts and out to the road. I kept a shirt over my face and was now seeing smaller active fires, which quickly turned into racing by active fires on the roads I was driving. Heat was penetrating the car as if sitting by a large campfire. I kept having to slam on the brakes and turn around as some roads were blocked by fire. I wasn’t going to drive down any road with trees and telephone poles on fire, fearing they could fall on the car. I was smart enough to be focused on escaping and not documenting any more photos or video after this point. The imagery and situation got much worse from the ones shown here.

* Eventually finding way to a West bound side road and decided to enter a traffic jam of evacuees. Thinking at least they may know the best direction to head as GPS didn’t know what was open and on fire. I was in neighborhoods now. Not a hostile jam, but a helpful traffic jam of people looking out for each other. It was raining ash with bright orange glow seen thru thick smoke behind us. Plenty of sirens and emergency personnel headed towards active situations. They left the traffic to us and rightfully so.

* Around 9am I made it to the highway South. And around 11:45am got to SFO Airport. I was communicating and sharing location digitally with others so my last locations would always be known. Often times it would take several minutes to get a message through due to mobile phone traffic I would assume. The battery was draining quickly, but I did have a charger in the car.

* I had another event in Pennsylvania the next day, so made my way there smelling like a chimney.

Those were the decisions I made at the time in that situation.

What I feel I did right:
* Got out quick. Minutes mattered. I left stuff. Stuff that I needed yes, but nothing more important than getting out.
* I was in a get-to-safety mindset mode. It was an anxious and alert state of taking action and moving forward. Solving this problem efficiently. Had to be smart and make quick decisions at the time with the information I had.
* I was always thinking and anticipating “What If’s”. If I have to go on foot what would I do? What if fire spread to that house? What if run out of gas? I always wanted to have two exit strategies or options.
* Kept a shirt over my face as much as I could.

What I Learned:
* Expect nothing and hope for anything. YOU are on your OWN. There were NO alarms and I received no notice of any sort from the hotel, even though fire doors were closing. Multiple other survivor reports on the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Facebook page share stories of guests banging on other guests doors, no alarms, lighting, emergency power or communication.
* One testimony does report that an employee was banging on doors around 2:35am and those people got out with whatever they were wearing at the time. With multiple buildings in the resort, I’m not sure how long that happened. I especially appreciative of that employee, assuming they would have been in preservation of personal life mode and took a risk to help others. Regretfully, this hotel page has since been removed from Facebook.
* Following some cars after exiting the parking lot led me nowhere. Don’t just be a follower

* While I glance at exit signs and fire stairs, do I really know where they are? Take less than a minute and know how many doors down on your right or left are the stairs or door if you are crawling and can’t see. How many seats are you away from the over-the-wing exit on a plane? I took the long way to my car and added to my confusion and time to get to the car as a result.

* Wish I had I had water in the car. Yes to drink, but, also to wash out my eyes or wet the t-shirt held over my face. I had a LOT of eye irritation I was battling.

What I’m personally changing:
* Moving my hotel preferences to be a room on a low floor

* Should have had a fully charged battery backup. If I didn’t have the ability to charge a phone in the car, the battery would have drained quickly, losing any ability to communicate and share position.

* While every inch of my carry-on baggage is tightly planned, I’m now also packing:

* A flashlight. I’m actually adding two. My phone did work as a flashlight, but not very user friendly in an emergency, or if you need your hands. Adding a mini-LED as well as a small headlamp for hands-free use.
* A mini role of duct tape. For use to tape up air ducts if needed to block smoke, or even to make a flip flop to protect your feet in a bind.

What is YOUR plan?
As a venue, a conference host or a participant, what is your emergency plan? And when did you last rehearse and test it? The negligence on part of the hotel along with lack of seemingly working emergency systems that I witnessed that night was nothing short of dangerous, negligent and potentially life impacting. Their follow-up process to communicate with me and ensure my safe result also appears to be lacking or non-existent.
* What would you have done at check-in to inform of any possible threats if known at the time?
* What systems are automated to communicate to all participants, guests or team members? Who can access them and are they trained to do so in a high-risk environment?

On the opposite spectrum, I was the conference emcee at the AccountexUSA show in Boston a few weeks back. As part of that event team, we had an emergency communication tool in place. We tested that prior to the start of the conference to ensure we could communicate, track and confirm the safety of each team member if we had an unexpected threat or ‘What If” event.

What do you think your “What If’s” would be in that moment?

In the End:
* There are many who lost far more than I, and had similar escape scenarios from both the hotel as well as the town of Santa Rosa and other parts of California impacted by this disaster.
* Many tragically have lost lives.
* Lives, families, communities and neighborhoods devastated with little to no notice.
* My clients company had everyone accounted for by the end of the day, but sadly many had lost everything.
* The Hilton reported no casualties, however have had NO communication with me since the incident and not sure how they would know where anyone would be.

Update as of October 25th, 2017
* Eight days following the evacuation I received an email from Hilton Sonoma. It has been the ONLY communication I’ve received. They confirmed my room number, let me know I was not being charged for that evening and recommending “that you report the loss of all property to your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance coverage for recovery.”

* I have forwarded this article to the customer service email for THAT property and requested an opportunity to respond. I hope to update this with that response.

Jon Petz     Keynote Speaker, Recent Event Highlights, What To Do When.

4 Responses to Escaping the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Fire. What I did, learned and would change.

  1. Amy: October 26, 2017 at 2:30 am

    Jon- Amy from Padilla in MN here. It’s been a while. What a crazy situation. So, so glad you got out safely. And I hope your experience will help Hilton update their crisis and safety protocols and training. Stay well!

  2. Dianna Gould: October 26, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    Wow, what an experience. Thank goodness you got out safely. Appreciate the lessons learned bit. I will definitely throw some duct tape in my suitcase for my many travels. Be safe my friend!

  3. David Dalka: October 26, 2017 at 8:27 pm

    Jon – Glad to hear you are safe. Thanks for sharing the vivid details and lessons that you learned.

  4. Lee Alderman: October 28, 2017 at 12:43 am

    Jon – Thanks for filling in the details. So sorry you had to go through all of that and I am tremendously thankful you are OK.

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