A year ago this week, after wildfires bore down on Fountaingrove, Mark West, Larkfield/Wikiup, and Coffey Park, a handful of Santa Rosa residents who lost their homes found shelter and solace in an unlikely spot: the Astro Motel.
Technically, the 34-room hotel in Santa Rosa’s SOFA neighborhood was still a few weeks away from welcoming the public; it wasn’t supposed to start checking-in guests until early November.
That didn’t stop the Astro from opening its doors to locals who needed a place to stay. For free.
“People needed rooms and we had them,” says Liza Hinman, executive chef at Spinster Sisters restaurant and general manager of Spinster Hospitality, which owns the Astro. “I know that sounds really simple, but we were glad we could get our act together and open and provide a safe space for members of our community.”
Technically, because the hotel was just entering its final punch list, the kind gesture couldn’t have happened without explicit blessings from the City of Santa Rosa.
As soon as the fires hit, Astro co-owner Eric Anderson reached out to the city and asked how the hotel could help. The city responded by saying it would grant the Astro a temporary occupancy permit to open early and give people a place to stay.
Next, Anderson and Hinman reached out through their personal networks to get the word out: There was room at the inn.
“We didn’t want to exclude anybody, but we really were trying to keep it to fire victims and their immediate families,” Hinman says, noting that they included employees and regulars at the restaurant in the initial stage. “It was amazing how many members of the community we were able to cover with such a small search.”
Within two days, 28 of the 34 rooms were full. (The other six weren’t finished yet.)
The offer to stay for free at the Astro didn’t just include lodging; it included Internet, laundry services, breakfast, and dinner, too. Indefinitely—or at least as long as guests needed to make longer-term arrangements for housing.
These benefits were a huge relief for Brenda Fox, a resident of Coffey Park.
Fox left her house at 2:30 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 9, 2017 and made her way toward Piner Road with no idea where she was headed. While she inched away from the flames, Fox texted with her friend Amy Pinto, co-director of The Imaginists, a theater troupe with a small theater on Sebastopol Avenue in the SOFA district. Pinto told Fox to head to the theater, so she did.
The next morning, after learning that her house had burned, Fox heard that Anderson and Hinman were opening the Astro. When she received an invite to stay, she seized the opportunity. Fox was one of the first to check-in.
When Fox and a family friend arrived at the hotel, they had nothing but a plastic Target bag full of clothes to their names. Between the contents of the bag and the generosity of the hotel staff, this was more than enough to survive that first week.
“Everyone was so gracious—they didn’t bother us and gave us whatever they could,” she says. “Just knowing we had a home base and a place we could call ‘home’ during that incredibly stressful time was huge. To be honest, I’m not sure I could have focused on getting our lives together without their help that first week.”
Sara Joslyn, who fled her family’s home on Mark West Springs Road as a wall of flames advanced from the east, is also grateful for her time at the Astro.
Joslyn and her husband arrived at the hotel with one of their teenage sons, and hotel staff assigned them two rooms that connected via a private door. The three got accommodation with the help of a friend, who was also staying at the hotel.
What Joslyn remembers most about their time at the Astro is the service.
“The [employees] were so eager to help, so determined to make us feel comfortable in these obviously temporary surroundings,” she says. “They also were very self-reflective, and asked us constantly how they were doing, what they could be doing better, and what extra items like soap and shampoo we might need.”
Joslyn says she also remembers the sense of community on display across the street from the Astro at Dierk’s Parkside Café. Every morning, temporary residents from the Astro, neighbors, and first responders would gather in the parking lot to share stories and connect.
After their stay at the Astro, Joslyn and her family relocated to Annadel Apartments; their temporary home while they rebuild. Joslyn says they expect their new house to be finished by this time next year.
The Astro said goodbye to its last evacuee three months after the fires hit—well past the final extensions for FEMA housing. Since then, the hotel has celebrated steady occupancy, rave reviews and media hits. But, for Hinman and hotel manager Lisa Robbins, all of these milestones pale in comparison to knowing they were able to help friends and community members in need.
“We opened our doors and our hearts,” Robbins says. “It was transformative for everyone involved.”