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A wildfire with your Airbnb?

Episode Summary

Guests who book vacation rentals through Airbnb often have no idea that they're booking in a high-risk fire area. And the company provides no warning or escape plan if disaster strikes.

Episode Notes

A Los Angeles Times analysis found that thousands of short-term Airbnb rentals are in California’s most hazardous fire zones. But the company does not provide warnings or evacuation information to guests when they make a reservations, and some customers say the company’s refund policy adds to the potential dangers.

Today, as climate change threatens so many aspects of our lives, are even our vacations not safe anymore? Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times reporters Ben Poston and Alex Wigglesworth

More reading:

In California’s high-risk fire country, Airbnb offers guests no warning or escape plan

Is your vacation rental in a risky wildfire zone? What you need to know

California fires are burning faster, hotter, more intensely — and getting harder to fight

Episode Transcription

Gustavo Arellano: Wildfires. They're a part of life here in California. 

They threaten communities in popular vacation spots like Lake Tahoe, Big Bear, Malibu, even Yosemite these days. 

But a recent L.A. Times analysis found that guests who book vacation rentals in those spots through Airbnb often have no idea that they're booking in a high fire area – and that the company provides no warnings or escape plan if disaster strikes.

I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to The Times, essential news from the L.A. Times. 

It’s Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. 

Today, as climate change threatens so many aspects of our lives, are even our vacations not safe anymore?

My L.A. Times colleagues Ben Poston and Alex Wigglesworth looked into this issue. Ben, Alex, welcome to The Times.

Ben Poston: Thanks for having us.

Alex Wigglesworth: Yeah. Thank you.

Gustavo: Wildfires have always been a part of life in California. And, Alex, you are actually one of our Masters of Disasters, specializing in wildfires. But, Ben, one recent wildfire hit particularly close to you.

Ben: Yeah, I was at the time in 2018, I was living in Malibu with my now wife and we had been there for about a year and the Woolsey fire erupted, and also the Hill fire. I had lived in L.A. for, in the city for like four years. And wildfires were just something that happened in remote areas, wilderness areas. Never in a million years did I think that the fire could reach the ocean. So we were there that night and we looked on Twitter and saw that we were in the evacuation zone for the Hill fire. So we evacuated on Thursday night and then the next day, the Woolsey fire forced people in that area to evacuate. 

Our apartment complex, 20% of the units in the apartment complex burned. We were very lucky that ours was just damaged by just slight, a little bit of smoke and ash. But we had neighbors, just a couple doors down that lost everything. You'll never see wildfires the same once you've been through one. We got out that night and we got out safely. You know, we knew where to go. And I started thinking about, you know, people in California sort of know there's a risk, but tourists that are coming from out of the state or from internationally really have no idea what they're getting themselves into or how risky it is to stay there. 

In my role as a data journalist at The Times, we had done some stories where we had mapped the high risk wildfire zones, and I was able to obtain Airbnb listing data. And I was able to plot all those listings across the state of California and then overlay the wildfire zones and immediately started seeing, you know, a lot of overlap. Knowing that there's nothing on the Airbnb website to alert them, there's no evacuation information in the event of a wildfire. I found that pretty interesting and definitely worthy of exploring as a story.

Gustavo: Yeah. And all that data, what did it show?

Ben: You know, across California, and this was data from earlier this year, there were 23,000 short-term rentals that were located in the very high wildfire risk area. And that's about 20% of all the short-term listings from Airbnb in the state. And then if you drill down to the county level: the Tahoe area, the counties around there had 80% of their listings in the very high wildfire risk area, and then San Bernardino County at 60%. So, you know, you're talking about Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake, and there's thousands of listings, cabins and apartment rentals all around those lakes and people go up there and have no idea what they're getting themselves into.

Gustavo: This question of what might vacationers do in a fire emergency. It wasn't theoretical. You actually spoke to someone, Ben, that this happened to. 

Ben: Yeah. I spoke to Becca Rutledge. Becca was to be married the weekend of the Woolsey fire and her family had rented an Airbnb in the Santa Monica Mountains. 

Becca Rutledge: It was a beautiful, old mansion. It had a tennis court, it had a basketball court, it had a swimming pool.

Ben: And they were there the night that the Woolsey fire was coming up the mountain range and they were aware that it was in the area, but I don't think that they understood how close it was and how much in danger they were.

Becca: It was very windy when I first got there. That was the first thing I realized when carrying all the bags inside, it was quite a trek because of the wind was so strong.

Ben: Very early morning they get a call from the host, who was just staying down the road at a friend's house, saying you gotta get out, you have to evacuate. The fire is really close. 

Becca: My husband and I just look at each other, we're in bed. We're finally ready to just get some sleep. And we're like, OK, let's do this. It was very clear when we walked outside that we needed to leave immediately. There was a giant mushroom cloud above Malibu and it looked like an atomic bomb went off. I think within six or seven minutes, we had packed five cars. There was definitely not a, a plan in place. No real understanding of even where to go. 

Ben: They had no information at that point in terms of which direction is the fire, do we go south? Do we go west? Do we go north? Definitely don't go north or east because that's where the fire was. 

Becca: I was completely blindsided. I'm from Kansas City, so I'm all about tornadoes. You get me in a tornado, I know what to do. Um, fire evacuation was something I was definitely not ready for. 

Ben: They made their way down to the coast and out to Santa Monica and they got outta there safely. And she was able to get a last-minute wedding venue down in the South Bay, she was able to still get married. But she talked to me about how it was traumatic, obviously. 

Becca: And that next morning is when I saw the pictures. Immediately, just, my heart sank. It was devastating, seeing those pictures. I mean, it's, the whole place is burned down. You barely can recognize any of it except for the tennis court. And I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for putting my family in that situation. Even though I know now it's not my fault. But at the time I very much felt like it was my fault. 

Ben: The takeaway here is that when they got that Airbnb listing, they had no idea it was in a high fire zone. They didn't have any evacuation information. And they would've preferred to have known that. And the company should have alerted them, and, yeah.

Gustavo: More after the break. 

Gustavo: So, Alex, Becca Rutledge felt responsible for putting her family at risk. And you and Ben decided to look into what policies are in place to protect renters like her in a wildfire. How did you two go about doing that?

Alex: Yeah. So I cover wildfire for The Times environment team. Ben approached me with this really compelling data and asked if I could help report out the story. He had a list of the areas that have the highest concentration of Airbnbs that are wildfire prone, and we broke it down and took turns, reaching out to local government authorities to ask if they have any policies in place to deal with this. What we found was uneven patchwork of local regulations.

There are places like Truckee, which is kind of an outlier. Its ordinance requires owners to pass fire safety inspections, post an evacuation map, post a flier notifying guests of the fire risk and telling them how to sign up for emergency alerts. And after the Woolsey fire that Ben talked about, the city of Malibu also adopted stricter regulations that require hosts to tell guests about the risk and provide them with evacuation information. But many places like El Dorado and San Bernardino counties don't have rules addressing fire risk in short-term rentals at all. 

So in the absence of those rules, it falls on Airbnb to set its own policies. And the company said that it essentially leaves that up to individual hosts. They encourage hosts to be responsible. But the company doesn't routinely alert customers when properties are in a wildfire hazard zone. 

Ben: Most hosts, they'll ban smoking, they'll ban fireworks, they'll ban charcoal grills. They might ban outdoor fires. But they never specifically will mention the fire risk in the area. With Airbnb a lot of it's like, “make sure you have a functioning smoke detector in the house.” It's stuff that would be, you know, a requirement for, for any house or any apartment. 

Alex: The bottom line is Airbnb certainly could be doing more to warn people of the risk, rather than leaving it up to the host. They require hosts to do all kinds of things and they could require them to inform guests of wildfire risk, provide evacuation instructions, as part of those rules. 

Gustavo: Why the focus on Airbnb? Why not, say, hotel chains?

Ben: The reason we picked Airbnb was it's the largest rental site in the country. And we were able to get data. We weren't able to get data for VRBO and others. So that's why we focused on Airbnb. 

Alex: A lot of the local governments that we spoke with also don't have rules requiring hotels to notify people of the risks. But I do think that there's more of a shared responsibility there, because hotels have employees that work there, that are also exposed to the risk if they stay open. Airbnbs, the only people that are there will be the guests. You don't also have people that work for the company that's setting the rules that are exposed to the risk at the same time.

Gustavo: And on top of that, Airbnb has another problem when it comes to wildfires: a refund policy. What is it? 

Alex: Yeah. So some customers say that Airbnb's policies actually incentivize people to travel to areas near active wildfires, which could clog evacuation routes, possibly burden emergency responders and even put people in danger. This was a big issue last summer when we had the Caldor fire near Lake Tahoe.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (news clip): We continue to battle that fire. About 192,000 acres, 16% contained.

Alex: Some visitors wanted to cancel their Airbnb reservations in the area, but they found the company was unwilling to issue refunds. I spoke with one person named Jeremy Edwards who had booked a cabin with friends to celebrate a bachelor party in north Lake Tahoe. 

Jeremy Amade Hill Edwards: We started following the fires around Aug. 11, there are live videos of the lake that are freely available online. So we could see the lake. It looked beautiful. But over the course of a couple days, the smoke started crowding onto the lake. By Aug. 17, it was clear that the lake was unusable. The sky was red. The smoke was very thick. And a couple days after that, once we'd canceled our reservation, it became impossible to actually see the lake on the cameras.The air there was very bad, I believe on the Saturday or the Sunday reached above 500 AQI, um, 540, if I'm not mistaken, which is hazardous. So we would not have been able to leave the cabin. You can see why we decided not to go through with this. 

Alex: The Caldor fire started four days before their trip, but Airbnb said they'd either have to come and stay or totally forfeit almost $2,500 they'd paid to book the cabin. 

Jeremy: Our expectation was that Airbnb would refund us. 

Alex: Airbnb does have an extenuating circumstances policy that allows for cancellations due to unforeseen events, including states of emergency and natural disasters. And it did offer refunds to some customers affected by the fire. But you have to understand the Caldor fire was huge, fast moving and dynamic. For a couple days if not weeks, no one knew exactly where it might reach. So even if you weren't in an area that had already been evacuated, it didn't mean it was safe. A lot of recreational activities that are big draws for the area were canceled. Parks and trails were closed. Local businesses were closed. And you had tourism officials telling people not to come to the area. But at the same time, if you weren't in an active evacuation zone, Airbnb was refusing to issue refunds to some people who weren't willing to take the risk to travel to the area.

Jeremy: If people are not going to be refunded when they spend good, hard-earned money on potentially a holiday that might be once in a year, once in every couple of years, it creates a huge incentive for people to follow through on their holiday plans, if they're not gonna get their money back. And so it seems that Airbnb could be luring people into these dangerous situations by refusing to honor their extenuating-circumstances policy. 

Alex: Airbnb told us the property wasn't in an area that was eligible for a refund. They all ended up staying home and they plan to sue Airbnb in small claims court.

Jeremy: I think Airbnb's policy, written, is fine. But the way that they've actually implemented it by denying refunds creates a risk to public health. And that is how they're deriving their profits in these situations.

Gustavo: Yeah Ben, what was Airbnb's response to the story that you and Alex did; all the – all the findings?

Ben: Yeah, so Airbnb told us that it's the responsibility of the host to provide information of fire safety. They were sort of vague on that. But they put the liability and responsibility on the host. They didn't get into sort of evacuation routes and those sorts of things, but what they said is, as long as the host is following local government rules and providing that information to the guests, then they're good. They do point out that when there are any kind of natural disaster, they will send out emails saying, “Here are links to local emergency management sites,” like the local fire department or whatever it might be – county or local – to say, you know, here's where you go for information, and we're receiving general reports that there's a fire in your area. So they do do that, but that's not specific to knowing that this particular listing that you're at in Lake Tahoe is in a very high wildfire zone and that you need to be really careful.

Gustavo: So all responsibility is on the people who rent out the home and the people who are renting the home, and Airbnb says, no, we're just there.

Ben: Exactly. I will say that I actually looked at Malibu listings. I've noticed that more hosts are saying, “Oh yeah, by the way, this is in a high wildfire zone,” as just a courtesy. Some of them do let people know, but it's hard to find. You have to click through a couple little boxes to get to that spot. You know, it's not easy to see.

Gustavo: After the break, what travelers can do to protect themselves and their vacation plans from wildfires. 

Gustavo: Alex, what's happened since the story came out?

Alex: I mean, nothing has happened when it comes to Airbnb's official policy. As Ben noted, maybe there are some more hosts that are taking it upon themselves to notify guests of the potential risk, which is great.

Gustavo: What can people do in the meantime to prepare when they do rent an Airbnb or just go out into the forest? ‘Cause it seems all forests now in the United States are capable of wildfires at any time now.

Alex: Yeah, our colleague Karen Garcia wrote a great companion piece to our story that talks about what people can do. At the top of the list is just to consider wildfire safety as part of your checklist when you're making vacation plans, the same way you might bring extra medicine or buy travel insurance in case of an emergency. You can take into account the time of year and weather conditions when you're making plans. Although we know, fires can burn at any time, especially these days, they tend to spread fastest when it's hot and dry, especially in the late summer and fall months when there are also more high wind events. You can check whether a vacation rental is in a fire prone area using the official map from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which is available online. You can sign up for emergency warnings and orders from the county or town you're visiting. You can pay attention to local news, maybe subscribe to the L.A. Times. You can educate yourself about evacuation routes for wherever you're going.

Ben: Yeah, I think, with climate change, we see wildfires rage across California every year. And recently we saw the flooding in Yellowstone. We've seen flooding in Germany and other countries. As a traveler, I think you need to do research ahead of time, beyond just going to this general city or country, but, really do hyper-local research and try to figure out if this place, a hotel or, short-term rental, is it in a wildfire zone? Is it in a flood zone? If you're gonna travel, you should be eyes wide open and really do your homework.

Gustavo: Man, my siblings and friends all love to vacation out in the forest and meadows, but all these wildfires that keep coming up more and more are just honestly making them scared. Ben, is there any silver lining we can leave listeners with?

Ben: Well, that's a good question. What I'll say is, I do think people in California who have lived here a while are aware of the wildfire risk. I would hope that, you know, our story about tips when traveling would give people some information that they can use to protect themselves. And yeah, I don't have a great silver lining. Do you have a, do you have a silver lining, Alex?

Alex: I mean, I think like you said, Ben, as disasters increase, I think people's awareness of them is also increasing. So if there is a silver lining, I would say that it's just a heightened awareness of the potential risks that we’re facing.

Gustavo: That’s kind of a silver lining. Knowledge is good, right? Even if the knowledge is kind of scary. 

Alex: [silence]  ….yes….

Ben: ….yeah…

Gustavo: OK. Ben, Alex, thank you so much for this conversation. Thank you for your work.

Ben: Thanks for having us. 

Alex: Yeah. Thank you.

Gustavo: And that’s it for this episode of The Times, essential news from the L.A. Times. 

Maya Kroth was the jefa on this episode, and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. 

Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Brousalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Madalyn Amato and Carlos De Loera. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

Like what you're listening to? Then make sure to follow The Times on whatever platform you use. 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Wednesday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.