Things We Gained in the Fire

The Hot Tub Store helps its community recover

Photography by Chris Constantine

“There’s a fire down in town. In case it comes up the hill, what do you think I should grab?”

This is what Danny Matula called to ask his son Sky Matula at midnight October 9, 2017. There was already no power at his home north of Kenwood, California, between Santa Rosa and Sonoma. Danny grabbed what he could by the light of his cell phone; Sky called back a few minutes later and suggested his dad drive down to the end of the long driveway and leave his car there so he wouldn’t become trapped. By the time Danny drove down, houses across the road were on fire. He just kept driving.

“He FaceTimed me looking back up at the hill where the house was,” Sky Matula says, “and we watched our house and several others ignite into giant white light and flames hundreds of feet higher than the forest.”

The wildfires that swept through Northern California killed 42 people, destroyed more than 8,000 structures and displaced 100,000 people. Some, like Danny, left in the middle of the night, grabbing almost nothing.

The Matula family are part owners of The Hot Tub Store, which has locations in Santa Rosa, Folsom, Rocklin and Vacaville, California. No one else in the business was injured or lost their home, but the loss of the Matula home was devastating. Sky and his sister no longer lived there, but it was where they were born and where their mother, Ellen Friedman, died in 2013. Friedman was well known in the industry, having run the The Hot Tub Store for many years. She was inducted into Hot Spring’s Ring of Honor in January.

It was a time of intense grieving, not just for the Matula family, but also for their community. It affected the store financially and emotionally.

“We had several hot tubs not yet delivered that people called to cancel because there’s no longer a home to deliver to,” Sky says. “Then more and more people were just starting the process with insurance and still itemizing things. We were getting calls every day to get quotes for replacement — which won’t happen for several years — for reimbursement from their insurance. That was a super emotional, kind of traumatic, draining experience for our sales team, to be compassionate and take care of people and get them the information they need.”

But in the midst of the personal and communal grief, Sky, now president and CEO of the business, decided the company needed to help. It donated $5,000 to the Redwood Credit Union Fire Relief Fund, set up to help uninsured people who suffered losses. In addition, the company donated 10 percent of all paid invoices through the end of October. They spread the word, and in about two weeks were able to donate $36,000.

“It is a huge donation for our little company,” Sky says. “It was really our customers who were able to help us make that contribution to keep us going. They were just so grateful for what we were doing and for the opportunity for them to have a way to help. That was pretty awesome.”

The Santa Rosa store was unable to do much business for a couple of weeks, but with the help of the donation drive and its other four locations that weren’t in fire-ravaged areas, the company finished October slightly up from the previous year.

“I don’t think we could have done it if we had not made this commitment to donating, because we had a deadline,” Sky says. “It was through the end of October, so that really helped people pull the trigger because they knew they were going to be helping.”

The future is a little less certain. “There’s definitely going to be an interesting void for a couple of years,” Sky says. “Hopefully, there will be a little bit of a boom as people rebuild and choose to replace their Hot Springs spa. Time will tell. There’s talk that 30 to 50 percent of these people won’t rebuild because a lot were in their 60s and 70s, [and they] don’t want to take on a building project at this time in their life.” His dad, who will be 67 this year, started building their family home in his 20s, Sky says.

Sky has seen good come from the disaster. People are kinder to one another, and the loss seems to have reminded them of all that they have.

“There is just an amazing energy, love and sadness for everyone affected,” Sky says. “It seems like things have slowed down, and there’s a different appreciation for life and for each other.”

The Hot Tub Store is going to continue giving back as well. It has several donation drives planned for this year to support local nonprofit organizations and fire departments. Sky says, “We’re going to keep going with giving back.”

Robert Wismer, Sky Matula, Dan Friedman and Jeremy Haydock

Folsom, Rocklin, Sacramento, Santa Rosa and Vacaville, California


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