As a massive and historic wildfire rips through some of California’s most popular vacation land, a number of would-be travelers have discovered that they can’t easily get refunds from short-term rental company VRBO, according to recent reports.

The blaze in question, known as the Caldor Fire, began last month but in recent days has inched toward South Lake Tahoe, the largest community on the shores of one of California’s most popular bodies of water. The area includes numerous short-term rentals, but the fire has prompted widespread evacuations that have forced virtually everyone who booked a trip in the region to cancel.

Early reports that those travelers were having trouble with VRBO surfaced last week. In a piece from NBC 4 News, Idiana Wang said the fire forced her to cancel her wedding in the area, which had been scheduled for Aug. 28. Wang said she received a refund from the wedding venue, but not from a vacation rental she had booked through VRBO.

The property was operated by a company called Sierra Tahoe Realty and Rentals, according to NBC 4 News, with VRBO performing a third-party booking service. When NBC 4 News reached out to VRBO, the company responded with a statement noting that natural disasters “do not override the cancellation policy set by the host and agreed to by the guest when they book.”

“We recommend that travelers consider buying travel insurance that provides the right coverage for their needs to help protect their vacation plans,” the statement continued.

Inman has reached out to VRBO for comment and will update this story with any response.

Fire crews ride on the back of a truck as they prepare to battle the Caldor Fire on Monday in South Lake Tahoe. Credit: Justin Sullivan and Getty Images

The NBC 4 News report also describes the experience of Brian Mahuna, who like Wang used VRBO to book a property with Sierra Tahoe Realty and Rentals. Mahuna told the news station that Sierra Tahoe Realty and Rentals offered a two-night credit, but ultimately refused to refund the cost of the trip.

Additional similar reports have surfaced this week.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Chronicle profiled the case of Trevor Robertson, who spent three days trying to get VRBO to refund a trip he booked in Nevada near Lake Tahoe. Robertson said he had spent $4,000 on the trip, but VRBO ultimately referred him to the host of the property.

“Our host seemed very unconcerned about our safety, not only refusing to refund us but actively encouraging us to come still,” he told the paper.

Robertson eventually recouped his money by appealing to his credit card company, which refunded the money after he explained the situation.

In addition to Robertson, Nicholas Solazzo also struggled to get a refund. Solazzo had reportedly spent $6,000 for a five-night stay in the area. He used VRBO to book lodging in a property operated by a local rental company.

Solazzo ultimately spent a week trying to get a refund. In his case, however, the property operator did ultimately refund the cost of the trip, according to the Chronicle, after the property owners took a vote. However, Solazzo said the process of trying to get the money was a “nightmare” and he was still critical of VRBO.

“This company just isn’t doing the right thing,” he told the Chronicle. “I’m a business consultant, and I work with companies, and this is something they should probably update in their policies.”

A chairlift at a ski resort sits idle as the Caldor Fire moves through the area on Monday in Twin Bridges, California. Credit: Justin Sullivan and Getty Images

Natural disasters pose a unique challenge for the vacation rental industry, which in the grand scheme is still relatively young. It’s also comprised of a patchwork of small and large owners, as well as booking sites such as VRBO, Airbnb and Vacasa. The result is that travelers — sometimes without even realizing it — may be working with multiple companies, with varying refund and cancelation policies, when booking a trip.

Though most of the reports that have surfaced in recent days have focused on VRBO, the NBC 4 News report also indicated that some travelers had struggled with refunds for trips booked via Airbnb.

In a statement to Inman, Airbnb said its “Extenuating Circumstances Policy has been activated for eligible reservations in impacted areas by the Caldor Fire.”

“Hosts and guests with eligible reservations can cancel penalty-free through this policy,” the statement added. “We are closely monitoring the situation and following guidance from emergency management authorities on the ground.”

Given the ongoing fire situation, conflicts involving travelers, property owners and booking companies are likely to continue. In the case of the Caldor Fire, the blaze had grown to more than 200,000 acres as of Wednesday, making it the 15th largest blaze ever recorded in California.

Elsewhere in California, the Dixie Fire had burned more than 840,000 acres as of Wednesday, making it the largest single blaze in state history. All but three of California’s 20 largest wildfires have happened this century, and climate scientists have suggested the situation is only likely to worsen as the globe warms — meaning travelers’ plans will likely clash with fires for the foreseeable future.

For now, though, those caught between a fire and a cancelation policy are still smarting from their experiences in recent days.

“If they care about their customers, in this case, they’re being negligent,” Solazzo ultimately told the Chronicle, speaking of VRBO. “Their policies, or lack thereof, [reflect] that they really don’t care about the safety and wellbeing of their customers.”

Update: This post was updated after publication with a statement from Airbnb.

Email Jim Dalrymple II

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