Hotels remain home for many Sonoma County fire refugees in holiday season
At first, the temporary lodgings were kind of cool, despite being brought on by an unthinkable disaster.
After the October wildfires destroyed his Santa Rosa home, Andy Luttringer checked into the Flamingo hotel, one of the city’s most iconic inns with its pink neon sign and resortlike amenities that drew Hollywood stars of yesteryear.
Luttringer and his two adult children, Andy, 23, and Laura, 21, enjoyed a vacation away from misery. They could order room service, go to the bar or lie by the pool.
But the suitcase existence soon got old. The family had to switch rooms often to make way for other guests. And they got tired of hauling their laundry around.
The 300-square-foot hotel room wasn’t home.
“It was fun for about the first three days,” said Luttringer, 62, a widower and a retired cop who lost his spacious Fountaingrove house of 18 years in the Tubbs fire.
Now, nearly three months after they were displaced, the Luttringers are still at the Flamingo and plan to stay into the new year.
Like many people across Sonoma County, they will spend Christmas as paying guests with a parking lot for a view and strangers in the room next door.
Some of those guests have put up decorations. Others are filling their rooms with gifts, including belongings that needed to be replaced after the fires. The future for many is uncertain.
“I’ll be with my kids,” said Luttringer, who lost his late wife’s heirloom decorations in the fire. “That’s all that matters.”
The lingering residential limbo for fire refugees has translated into a continued surge in countywide hotel occupancy. In November it was 85 percent - the highest for the month in 11 years - as residents burned out of more than 5,100 homes sought refuge. Revenue increased more than 21 percent to $27.5 million based on a total room count of 6,283.
“There were thousands of people displaced by the fires,” said Steve Jung, head of the Sonoma County Lodging Association and general manager of the Double Tree by Hilton Sonoma Wine Country in Rohnert Park. “Obviously, that did increase the demand in the market.”
The number of fire victims contributing to the rise was expected to taper off this month as people locate permanent housing. The exact number still in hotels was not available.
Don Hamilton, the Flamingo’s front office manager, said he’s down to “a handful.” Since the October disaster, he’s put up about 690 people with FEMA vouchers and more than 100 people who were either covered by insurance or employers including area hospitals.
The hotel lowered its $329 weekend rate by 45 percent to help out, he said.
“We don’t want to make a fortune off other people’s misery,” Hamilton said.
Across town at Extended Stay America on Corby Avenue about eight families were remaining over the holidays, down from a peak of up to 25 families last month, said Ushma Arya, the general manager.
Some put up Christmas decorations, she said.
“They are happy now to be here,” Arya said. “At least they have shelter. They have some hope and roof over the heads.”
Among them are Brad Pettibone-Weare, 20, his fiancée, Krislyn, 19, and their month-old baby, Aryella, who was born after the Mark West-area home they were renting with his parents was destroyed by fire. With the tight housing market, they have so far been unable to find another place to live so they’re getting by with two hotel rooms. Grandma watches the baby while Pettibone-Weare goes to work at Starbucks or the couple takes a break.
“It’s rough,” he said. “No one’s really getting any sleep. My mother is helping us out so we’re not completely zombified.”
Hoteliers said there is no limit to how long a person can stay. City and county ordinances require them to pay transient occupancy tax of between 9 and 12 percent for the first month. The tax is waived after 30 days.
Many guests report being required to change rooms often. Innkeepers maintain it’s only so they can fulfill reservations made before the fires, not to trigger more taxes.
The Luttringers, whose stay at the Flamingo is covered by insurance, never see a bill.
After getting burned out of their Fountainview Circle home, the Santa Rosa father and his adult kids were unable to find a hotel room anywhere in the North Bay.
It took about a week to get into the Flamingo. Eventually, they each got their own room. But the novelty of hotel life wore off quickly.
“We’ve been here 10 weeks and we’ve been moved eight times,” he said.
The Flamingo’s Hamilton said hotel burnout is common and hits most people after about the second week. Things people take for granted such as the stress-reducing effects of cooking, the ability to leave pets behind or the chance to put on some music and take a candle-lit bath are gone, Hamilton said.
After a while, the space becomes too small even for married couples, who sometimes request their own rooms, he said.
“Whatever excitement they had eventually wears off,” Hamilton said. “There’s a need to get back to normal routines.”
The Luttringers would agree.
They all rise early each morning, drink coffee and go off to work or school.
Andy Luttringer, a real estate broker, hangs out at his vintage car shop on Piner Road. He spends his days talking to his insurance company and dealing with lawyers. He’s among hundreds of plaintiffs who have sued PG&E over the fires.
In years past, Christmas was an important holiday for the Italian-American family. They had amassed a hope chest filled with ornaments including many collected by his late wife, Patty. But the chest burned along with everything else in the four-bedroom house including many of her original oil paintings.
Luttringer didn’t decorate his hotel room because he’s always moving, but he’s got a table-sized tree at the shop with Plymouth ‘Cuda and Dodge Demon muscle car ornaments on it.
For gifts, he’ll buy necessities for his kids that they lost in the fire like computers, cameras and electric toothbrushes.
“I’m a big Christmas guy,” Luttringer said. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a house.”
Plans to move the family into an apartment near the Coddingtown Mall have been pushed back to mid-January.
Just where he’ll be next year is uncertain. He hasn’t decided if he’ll rebuild his home or buy a new place. One thing is sure, he plans to stay in Sonoma County.
“It would be kind of hard to leave Santa Rosa,” said Luttringer, a Marin County native. “This is my home now.”
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ppayne.