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Things I learned when our Airbnb caught fire
Does Airbnb have a responsibility to screen properties more closely?
BY MEDINA EVE
We were escaping the bustle of the city for the weekend, beautiful. Waiting for us thirty minutes north of Guelph, Ontario was a cabin, nestled deep in the forest, tucked in by three feet of fluffy, untouched snow.
No electricity or running water? Phenomenal. No reception for our devices? Perfect. Nothing but a wood-burning oven to keep us warm for two days? Let’s do this.
Armed with the coziest of blankets, a few simple meals, and a satchel of reading material, my partner and I take off for a quick, much-needed escape.
And it’s adorable, guys.
We trudge through the snow and follow our hosts’ instructions to retrieve the key to the cabin, and drop our things. The cabin is two floors, with a wood-burning oven on the main floor, and a thick bed pad to sleep on upstairs. But it’s so tiny that my six-foot-two partner can practically stretch his arms out and graze both walls of the main living space. The cabin feels very much like a treehouse, only firmly planted on the ground.
The tin chimney runs from downstairs, through the ceiling and into our bedroom, passing within a foot of the “mattress” before disappearing into the roof. Looking at it makes me nervous.
I make a mental note of the fire extinguisher hanging on the wall when we walk in. Mostly because a week prior, I had a conversation with a friend that went a little something like this:
Despite my nerves, I’m really looking forward to some time away. The drive up is smooth and we get to work as soon we get in the door; the fire will take an hour to warm the tiny space and it’s minus ten degrees outside. It’s already nighttime when we get in, so my fella sets up the fire while I build us a cozy sleeping nook. We snuggle in bed and it’s been a long week so I’m fading quick, leaving my partner to toss and turn restlessly, waiting for sleep to come.
But it’s starting to get a little smokey in the bedroom. And while I’m teetering on the cusp of sleep, my partner starts to panic. There’s too much smoke. He says this out loud and I’m rousing. Something’s not right, he says.
He climbs down to tinker with the flue. But upstairs, it’s becoming hard to breath. My eyes sting when I open them. In a daze, I feel around for the window I know is near, stumbling a couple of feet away from the bed. And eyes shut, I try to waft clear air into my lungs to replace the bad. Well, that’s annoying; we’ll definitely need to air out the cabin for a bit, I think naïvely, still half-asleep. After a moment, I open my eyes and gaze to my left.
It takes a moment to register what I’m looking at.
The bed, the one I was just sleeping in, is on fire.
Our blankets act like kindling, flames licking upwards, taunting me. Opening the window had let in just enough much-needed oxygen to ignite the fire.
Then I’m yelling. There’s a fire grab the extinguisher and oh my god check by the door, and I’m using whatever I can find to smother the flames, and oh my god hurry. Hurry because I can’t breathe oh my god please.
He finds the extinguisher as I scurry down the makeshift ladder, and there are two, just two, brief spurts left in it. But it’s enough to get us the hell out of there.
Then we’re outside. We can’t tell for sure if it’s over; plumes of smoke pour from the windows. Feathers from the bedding float delicately like snow. The coldness of the snow on my socked feet is almost rude. I’m begging my phone, please work, because the Airbnb listing boasted no phone reception.
I really need that to not be true right now.
We get a hold of our host. We wait for what seems like forever and the quiet of the woods feels unnerving. I’m thinking about the damage: I can’t believe it. What if the whole thing burns down? The fire department would never get here in time. How would they even find us, deep in the forest?
After the smoke cleared (literally), we spent days rehashing our adventure. How the hell could someone rent a space that is so unsafe? Our hosts insisted that nothing like this had ever happened before. It’s clear to us that the property isn’t well maintained; could there have been a chimney fire? And why was there so little fluid in the fire extinguisher? Was it expired, or had previous renters used it up (proof of the significant fire risk)?
And we got to thinking: does Airbnb have a responsibility to screen properties more closely?
Lessons we learned
When it comes to your safety, don’t assume anything is taken care of. Pack the nerdiest first aid kit you can find, make a mental note of where to find safety items (e.g. fire extinguisher), check the batteries on the smoke detectors, etc. Don’t be shy about having the necessary conversations with your host about safety features. Do this especially hard when the place is off-grid and quirky, which is a big selling point for Airbnb properties but potentially risky for you. Airbnb experiences are generally excellent, and in many cases rival the hotel experience ten times over, but they definitely don’t have the same safety regulations. Or any.
Wood-burning stoves are fickle and need a lot of maintenance
Our research revealed that wood-burning stoves tend to build up an excess of creosote, a gummy, highly flammable material in the chimney. Fires that are built to last the night are ideal for creosote formation, because air-starved, slow-burning fires make for cooler smoke. If the smoke cools below 250 degrees fahrenheit, the gases liquify, combine and solidify, forming creosote. It can take on a lot of forms; liquid that runs down the chimney and trickles through seams, a hard coating that lines the inside of the chimney, a fluffy substance that plugs pipes and breaks off in pieces, etc.
It means that wood-burning stoves need a ridiculous amount of maintenance. They need to be properly installed, insulated and cleaned very often, especially if they’re used to heat a space overnight and with damp wood, as in the case of our beloved cabin. Our host claimed to use an anti-creosote powder, but these have proved to be pretty ineffective, particularly given the heavy use of the stove in the winter.
If you’re staying someplace with a wood-burning stove, be absolutely adamant that your hosts show proof of a building inspection. Even if they claim to know what they’re doing, there are a ton of factors involved in stove safety. Wood moisture, the size and placement of the chimney, the chimney liner, the size of the flue, the length of the stove pipe and the size of the stove, frequency of use, are all factors that need to be considered.
There’s a thing or two to know about the fancy $1 million insurance plan that Airbnb put in place as well. In our case the damage was minimal, but you might be surprised to learn that the “every booking, every time” insurance coverage only applies if the property is already insured.
If the damage exceeds the amount that the existing property insurance affords, then and only then could the renter dip into Airbnb’s coverage. Sneaky, sneaky.
It also says something kind of interesting about Airbnb as a whole. They love to show off all the weirdo, quirky properties but aren’t very upfront about which properties are insured and which aren’t. I suspect that a lot of their quirkier properties aren’t insured, but it’s not really a question most people think to ask when they’re booking an Airbnb. So their “every booking, every time” marketing leads you to believe that a) if something happens, you’re covered and b) that they have done their due diligence to make sure the place is safe/up to code, because an insurance policy like that would demand fairly rigorous screening. But neither of these things are true.
As a sidenote, it’s also odd from a brand standpoint, as many of the properties that Airbnb likes to show off in their fancy curated lists are pretty quirky/off-the-grid, so I would be willing to bet that a bunch of them aren’t insured.
Airbnb reviews are beautiful things. In a community like this, you have a responsibility to share your experience, especially when it comes to safety. Be thoughtful when you’re sharing information about your experience, and don’t worry about offending your hosts. In our case, our hosts dealt with the situation with great compassion and poise, and I felt bad leaving a negative review. But my responsibility is to future renters, and I would never forgive myself if something happened to someone staying in the cabin and I hadn’t adequately flagged the risks. Be detailed and thorough, so that even if the property continues to be rented without adding safety features, you’ve done your best to warn future renters.
This is so important. Whatever you do, take tons of photos if you have an incident. I’m embarrassed to admit that in the whirlwind of it all, we didn’t snap any photos. I remember thinking I should be taking some, but the smoke was still pretty thick and we were pretty focused on getting the hell out of there. We were really lucky that our hosts were honest about the whole incident, and we were all on the same page. But if things get legal, you’re going to need photo evidence.
Follow your gut
I had a bad feeling about this place for a reason. Trust your instincts and raise your concerns with your host, even if it feels over the top in the moment.
The Dark Side
I love Airbnb. And I understand that there are risks associated with rentals, especially the weirder ones that make Airbnb so appealing. But it would be nice to see more effort put into ensuring that places are safe to rent. As it stands, users can flag a property to have the Airbnb users can flag a property to have Trust & Safety Team investigate, but this isn’t usually triggered until something bad happens.
This is indeed the dark, seedy underbelly of innovation. New platforms emerge faster than regulations evolve to account for risk. It means that policy is crafted and refined around incidents like these, and only prompted when something really, really bad happens.
The $1 million dollar insurance policy that Airbnb introduced in 2011, for example, was catalyzed by an incident involving a property being robbed and trashed by a renter. (You can read her story here.)
When I spoke to Airbnb, they indicated that safety-related situations don’t happen very often, thus they deal with them on a case-by-case basis. But maybe not so rare, as just one week after the fire, they announced emergency safety cards, first aid kits, and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors will be available for hosts in the US.
Also, our case was largely one of neglect. These things happen all the time, Airbnb or no Airbnb. Especially in cabins in the forest with no cell reception and no electricity. But the hosts themselves didn’t properly care for the wood stove. They didn’t check to be sure the fire extinguisher was full. They simply didn’t do their due diligence, and no amount of safety kits or smoke detectors will help if hosts are neglectful.
The fire may have been an edge case, but edge cases are important. They help you understand the spectrum of possibilities to which your business is subject. And helps to identify gaps in your process and allow you to get ahead of what could be really serious PR problems, at the very least. If someone dies because Airbnb failed to provide any safety screening or training for hosts, that’s a problem.
Airbnb did a good job of following up with us, asking after our health and my hand (which was burned in the fire) and reimbursing us for the things we lost in the fire. And I do appreciate that immensely. They’ve built a solid brand—so good in fact, that it impressed upon me a certain amount of trust. But it’s a trust that isn’t backed up by any solid safety screening, which is a scary thing.
A bit more effort into screening their quirkier properties would go a long way towards due diligence. Cabins like ours—off-the-grid, environmentally-friendly, and full of charm—are a perfect example of one of those properties. But it’s properties like these that present some serious safety hazards; it’s too off-the-grid for emergency access, and the wood stove as a stand-in for electricity demands special safety considerations. A better system for flagging higher-risk properties before they become a problem is really important; perhaps triggering the system to send out an inspector.
We were really, really lucky. If my partner hadn’t been so restless, kept awake from a late afternoon coffee, would he have been awake enough to detect the danger? Had he been as tired as me, would we both have inhaled too much smoke, passed out? People in fires don’t generally succumb to the fire itself; the smoke inhalation takes you first. The next people might not be so lucky. It shouldn’t take a tragedy for Airbnb to get serious about the safety of their properties.
Medina Eve is a digital strategist at The Working Group, a local market fiend, and a project person. This article was originally featured on Medium and reposted with permission.