Braving the Butte Fire Evacuations in California

No matter where your resort is located, there’s a good chance you’ll have to respond to a natural disaster at some point. Since 2013, our management company has dealt with a magnitude 6.0 earthquake in Napa Valley, two California wildfires, and flash flooding in Banff, Canada. Resorts in other regions may also deal with tornadoes and hurricanes. We always hope for the best vacation experience for our guests, and that’s why we have a plan for the worst.

I was recently reminded of the importance of disaster preparedness when a wildfire destroyed more than 76,000 acres in the county where I live and work. At first, I didn’t think much of the Butte Fire. Mountain Retreat Resort is located in Arnold, California, about 40 miles east of where the blaze began on Wednesday, September 9, 2015. But the situation quickly escalated, requiring me and my team to remain strong in the face of crisis.

On Thursday, the day after the fire started, I began receiving real-time updates on my phone via Nixle.com, a free communication platform that is used by public safety departments across the country. Community members can sign up for text message, email, or voicemail alerts based on zip code. I was able to stay informed about mandatory evacuations and road closures, which grew closer every hour.

By the time I arrived at work on Friday morning, the fire looked more threatening, and I began considering the possibility of an evacuation. I advised the front desk staff of my concerns so they would not be caught off guard. I asked them to be prepared for an influx of phone calls from incoming guests. We also began monitoring air quality levels on AirNow.gov, so we could keep guests safe and informed.

I oversaw a flood evacuation in my previous management position, so I knew firsthand the importance of appearing calm and clearheaded during emergencies. This is especially true when speaking with associates. Management sets the tone for line-level associates, who in turn set the tone for guests. If a manager can convey that he or she is in control of the situation, everyone will feel more confident and the likelihood of group panic will be significantly reduced.

Around lunchtime, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Department placed Arnold under an advisory evacuation, meaning that the fire had spread and a mandatory evacuation was likely. My team called all of our guests to inform them of the situation. We asked that they prepare themselves, which meant canceling any outings, packing up belongings, and staying tuned for more information.

A few hours later the sheriff’s department did, in fact, put us under a mandatory evacuation order. The fire was now within 10 miles of Mountain Retreat, and we immediately switched from putting everyone on alert to securing the property and our guests. We had about 50 guests at the resort, in addition to our 10 associates.

My team responded admirably. They went from unit to unit, speaking with each family and giving them maps showing the evacuation route. One of the greatest challenges for a resort like ours is that there is only one highway in and out of the area. SR 4 was closed to the west due to the fire, so we directed guests to drive east to our sister properties near Lake Tahoe. For remote resorts in particular, it is extremely important to know the open evacuation routes and have directions printed beforehand.
At the same time, I notified my regional director, James Tennery. James was invaluable throughout the experience, as he was able to coordinate with RCI and our home office to ensure that Mountain Retreat availability was removed for the near future and incoming guests were relocated to other resorts. It is impossible for a general manager to do it all during a crisis. James ensured that I could be the “boots on the ground,” while he acted as the center person to coordinate all of the logistics outside of the resort.

Once all the guests and associates left the property, I had to secure it, which included shutting off utilities, going through each unit to make sure no guests remained on site, and locking everything. Looters often take advantage of natural disasters, and there were two reports of burglaries near Arnold. It’s important to not just run out the door without minimizing the risk of vandalism or theft.

Fortunately, the fire did not come much closer, and the evacuation order was lifted on Sunday. My team and I were able to reopen the resort the same day. Some of the guests we had sent to Tahoe wanted to finish their vacations at Mountain Retreat, so we flexed our usual check in/check out days to accommodate them.

Throughout the process, we relied on our pre-exisiting communication to keep everyone informed. The marketing team at our home office sent an email to all of our owners, many of whom were wondering about the resort. Social media and text alerts are two other excellent options.

You can never be fully prepared for a natural disaster. You never know when something is going to happen. However, September’s evacuation went smoothly largely because we are familiar with our emergency manual and hold periodic drills to make sure everyone knows what to do in the event of a fire. What could have been very difficult was handled calmly and smoothly, with our guests remaining top priority.

Jennifer Langdon is general manager at Mountain Retreat Resort in Arnold, California. Jennifer joined Mountain Retreat’s management company, Grand Pacific Resorts, in early 2014, bringing with her more than a decade of management experience at a ski resort in Vermont.

Natural Disaster Preparedness
• Hold periodic drills.
• Create a communication plan.
• Get to know public safety before a crisis.
• Have preprinted maps on hand.
• Subscribe to a real-time alert system

During a Natural Disaster
• Delegate tasks to people outside of the crisis.
• Stay calm and authoritative.
• Inform guests about the crisis in person.
• Know which roads are closed.
• Use social media to reduce outside inquiries.