Nurses unable to cancel Tahoe rental as Airbnb says 'bad weather' isn't extenuating circumstance

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Thousands of people normally would be flocking to Lake Tahoe for the Labor Day weekend. Now, as the Caldor fire sweeps across the Sierra, tourists are forced to cancel their plans. But despite the fire and smoke, many say they had trouble getting refunds for their rentals.

Labor Day and Lake Tahoe always go hand in hand, but this year, folks who are stressed out by the pandemic were especially eager to go up, breathe fresh air, and hike in the trees. Instead it's smoke, fire, and evacuations. So it was puzzling when some Airbnb hosts didn't agree this was an emergency.

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Jamie Bulla and seven other San Francisco nurses had just spent 18 grueling months together, fighting COVID-19. "We work together, we've been through the pandemic together, so we were all really craving this," she said.

They were ready for a getaway.

"And we were just going to go to Lake Tahoe and hang out on the beach, go out to eat, all that fun stuff," said Bulla.

"So we're gonna go down to South Lake Tahoe. And just kind of enjoy. We rented, like, a bigger home. And you know, enjoy like, hikes and just being by the lake and the water, enjoying the sun," said her friend Ana Diaz.

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They rented a big house in South Lake Tahoe through Airbnb for a much needed mid-September getaway.

"We were really looking forward to it. It's one of our first hangouts after COVID," said Bulla.

"We were like all gung-ho and then...." said Diaz.

And then it happened.

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The fast-moving inferno raced toward their getaway spot, the air too thick to breathe, thousands fleeing to safety.

They asked their Airbnb host to cancel their reservation.

Jyotsna Mentreddi and her family booked an Airbnb rental a year ago, never thinking this could happen -- a raging fire, poisoned air. "We go every year on Labor Day to South Lake Tahoe with our families," said Mentreddi.

She told her Airbnb host to cancel.

"And the hosts were like, no, we're not giving you a refund..." she said.

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So, she asked Airbnb to cancel under its policy allowing refunds during emergencies.

"And then they were like, 'Oh, it's not an extenuating circumstance,'" she recalled.

An Airbnb email said: "the policy of the host will apply... we cannot process a refund... I totally understand this is not the resolution you'd like to hear."

It wasn't.

"I wouldn't have gone but I felt like they were telling me you should go," said Mentreddi.

"And it's perfectly fine. With the beaches closed, the businesses closed, everything up in flames. Yeah. Thank you," she said sarcastically.

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After months of wearing PPE, guarding against COVID, the last thing the nurses wanted was to go up into the smoke. They couldn't get a refund either.

"It feels like any setback now just hits us a little bit harder..." said Bulla.

Their email from Airbnb said: "Sorry you need to cancel due to bad weather" but "your reservation is not covered under our extenuating circumstances policy" and "we recognize this is not the outcome you hoped for."

The Airbnb policy allows for refunds in areas with a "declared emergency."

However, the crisis was changing by the day. 7 On Your Side contacted Airbnb and it agreed Tahoe was still under a declared emergency on Labor Day weekend. And Mentreddi received a refund.

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However, the nurses are not going up until September 17th. It's possible the emergency will be over by then, and Tahoe could reopen -- if not, Airbnb may extend the policy and allow cancelations.

"That would be amazing," said Bulla.

Not all booking sites have a cancelation policy that applies to all hosts. When you book on any site, read their refund policies so you'll know what's in store -- especially with all the natural disasters lately, it can be hard to make a safe travel plan.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

Have a question for Michael and the 7 On Your Side team? Fill out the form HERE! 7OYS's consumer hotline is a free consumer mediation service for those in the San Francisco Bay Area. We assist individuals with consumer-related issues; we cannot assist on cases between businesses, or cases involving family law, criminal matters, landlord/tenant disputes, labor issues, or medical issues. Please review our FAQ here. As a part of our process in assisting you, it is necessary that we contact the company / agency you are writing about. If you do not wish us to contact them, please let us know right away, as it will affect our ability to work on your case. Due to the high volume of emails we receive, please allow 3-5 business days for a response.

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