Everything We Learned When Our Airbnb Caught On Fire

Braden and I have a formula that we love, now that we’re travelling with a toddler. We avoid staying in hotels because there’s just not enough space. Campbell is used to sleeping in his own dark room and, typically, the only equivalent in a hotel room is the bathroom. That leave either me, Braden, or both of us sitting silently in a hotel room at 7pm waiting for him to fall asleep, and then in for the rest of the night (and going down to the hotel lobby to pee). In an Airbnb, though, we can have more space (at least two bedrooms), our own space after Campbell goes to sleep and, just as helpful, a kitchen to store toddler-meal basics and make some quick meals here and there. We have found that Airbnb pricing, especially in Asia, is competitive and it’s the only option we consider these days.Last week we embarked on a much-anticipated week away in Bali. Braden has been travelling a lot for work lately, so we were both ready for relaxing downtime, no agenda, sunshine, Bintangs on the beach, and full days together with Campbell. We checked into our villa and it was a dream. Great location, beautiful landscaping, perfect layout (more than enough space for us!), an outdoor seating area, gorgeous kitchen and living room with air-con, and a nice pool with an area that was the perfect depth for Campbell. Five stars to Braden for finding and booking us this Airbnb.

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Our beautiful Airbnb villa’s pool (albeit with an obvious water clarity issue) upon check-in .

We quickly settled into a routine in our “Bali house” as Campbell called it, feeding Campbell a quick breakfast at home, going out for coffees and breaky for Braden and I (smoothies and babyccinos for Campbell), back “home” for a swim in the pool, nap time for Campbell, then a scooter ride and time at the beach in the afternoon. We loved it all…until our villa caught on FIRE.

So, a bit of a backstory first. As pleasant as our stay was, there were a couple hiccups with the pool and property. Our host offered us an in-room massage and flower bath to make up for the inconvenience and we happily took them up on the offer. We put Campbell down for the night and went into our adjacent bedroom for our massage. We could hear that Campbell fell asleep quickly, and we thoroughly enjoyed our massages without disruption. Ninety minutes later we surfaced from our relaxed stupor, the masseuses left, and I climbed into my first-ever flower bath, surrounded by candles and incense. It was a little strange, but I enjoyed it as an experience I wouldn’t otherwise have ever paid for myself, blew out the candles, and that was that. Braden and I went to bed a few hours later.

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The picturesque flower bath (where I nearly caught my hair on fire).

I woke up after a couple hours sleep, around 1:30am, to a strange smell in the room. I remember thinking Why is the smell of incense so pervasive? I went into the ensuite bathroom and it seemed smoky. I checked each candle, specifically feeling that each one was cold. I checked the incense jar and it was cold too. I stuck my head out of our bedroom door, into the outdoor covered “hallway” and didn’t smell anything strange, so I went back to bed and tried to fall back asleep. A few minutes later I heard two BANGS in rapid succession, and knew something was wrong. I leapt up, turned on all of the lights in our room, and realized it was full of smoke. In the residual glow from the bedroom lights I could see smoke pouring into the bathroom through the ceiling lights. I turned around as Braden rose and all I could say was Something’s not right. Something’s not right over and over. He leapt out of bed, we both threw on clothes and ran out of the room. I immediately checked on Campbell No smoke in his room, and Braden ran the other direction, soon shouting The kitchen and living room are full of smoke! Even from a distance I could see smoke pouring out the top and bottom of the full-height glass doors and filling the covered outdoor seating area.

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A quick photo of the smoky chaos.

We both should have been freaking out at this point, but I don’t think we completely realized what was happening (maybe because we didn’t see flames?) and both stayed calm. Braden grabbed the booklet provided by the host that had remained sitting on the outdoor table during our entire stay. He found a number for the Fire Department but we had no cell reception on the property, so he ran up the long driveway to get a signal. While he did that I threw anything I could find (starting with passports and valuables) into suitcases and chucked them out into the driveway. Braden returned with help (a group of strangers who’d heard his calls for help), we grabbed Campbell from bed, and he and I moved away from the villa under the overhang of a neighbouring villa.

I cannot stress how helpful this pack of Indonesian guys were, calling the fire department directly and communicating on our behalf in Bahasa, finding a fire extinguisher in the unlocked villa next door, and eventually putting out the fire, which was contained within a storage room off the kitchen where the extra pillows, linens, towels, etc were stored. Braden said at one point someone had a fire extinguisher, someone had the garden hose, and someone had Campbell’s Peppa pig bucket full of pool water putting the fire out. I was outside with Campbell through all of this.

After the fire was out we went back to grab Campbell’s travel cot, blankie and “woof woof” (his sleep-time essentials), from his room. Needless to say, we got the heck out of there (leaving doors unlocked and people still milling around) and checked into a hotel up the road. We somehow managed to get a few more hours sleep until Campbell rose at his typical 7am wake-up time, ready to start this day and seemingly oblivious to the chaos only a few hours before.

We went back to the villa and, in the light of day, surveyed the damage. Ironically, the fire, which was in an ante-room off the kitchen, was started by a set of rechargeable emergency lights. This set of 4 lights sat in a charging docking station that was plugged in. We’ll never know why the fire started. The burnt and warped metal shelf that those lights had been stored on stood beside the pool. A wooden cabinet, a bit further from where the fire started, luckily didn’t go up in flames, and been hauled out as well. The burnt contents of the room (mostly linens) were in a black pile, and sooty items from the kitchen were strewn across the deck. Looking at it all gave Braden and I chills. We gathered the belongings we hadn’t taken with us in the night, and left.

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I don’t think this photograph conveys what a close call we had.

We’ll never know what might have happened; thank goodness we woke when we did. There are so many what-ifs. What if we’d been tipsy or drunk or more soundly asleep and not woken from the smell of smoke? We would have succumbed to smoke and never woken up. What if Campbell’s room had been closer to the kitchen and the master bedroom was further away? He surely wouldn’t have alerted us to what was going on. What if fire had a bit more time to grow and spread? It would have easily reached the two natural gas tanks under the sink in the kitchen, which were only 4 or 5 meters away. Thinking about that possibility is the scariest thing to me. It’s terrifying.

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The remnants of the emergency lights, which started the fire.

Braden and I are both well-traveled and generally aware of what’s required to stay safe. I fly with a thermometer and basic medicine for Campbell. I travel with a decently-stocked first-aid kit. Whenever we arrive somewhere new I make mental note of where ATM’s are and pay attention to the location of the closest medical clinic and pharmacy. We are quick-witted and stay calm under pressure. However, we were absolutely not prepared to deal with a fire. Here is what I would recommend to anyone staying in an Airbnb as a bare minimum for fire safety. Please learn from our experience.

Know In Advance

Now we know that Airbnb indicates on each listing whether properties have smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors (our villa had neither). In the future we will be travel with a portable smoke detector like this one and carbon monoxide detectors like this one. Yes, it sounds nerdy; we don’t care – it’s a matter of life and death.

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This is a screenshot from a random Airbnb listing. If there is a smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector it looks like this. If there isn’t, it’s crossed out (like the air-conditioning is in this listing).

General Precautions

Don’t Lock Yourself In

Most of the properties we have stayed in have an internal lock and key to secure the entry gate. This freaks us out because if the key is moved, you’re essentially locked in with no way to escape. We always leave keys in the lock for an easy escape. This is just common sense but easily overlooked.

Know Where Your Valuables Are

Braden and I have discussed that, going forward, it would be strategic to keep our valuables (laptop, camera, drone etc.) in one spot. I guess you could argue that it could make it easier for a potential thief to make off with everything (true) so maybe this is bad advice.

Know Where Your Passport Is

In the safe is a logical place to keep your passport, but many Airbnb’s don’t have one. We generally don’t keep our passports with us after we arrive in a destination (because we feel like they’re more likely to get damaged / lost / stolen). We will be mindful about tucking them somewhere that is hidden but easy to grab in an emergency.

Keep Jewelry By The Bed

I don’t typically travel with valuable jewelry, but if I do I will either wear it to bed or sleep with it in a small pouch next to my bed that can be grabbed in one second if there isn’t a safe.

Keep Medicine in One Place

Fortunately none of us rely on daily medications. If we did, I would now make sure to keep it all in one spot, probably in a bag ready to grab at a moment’s notice.

Charge Your Phone

We all rely on our phones and tend to get a bit anxious when the battery dips down to 20%. On vacation, though, I find that I’m not as diligent about keeping mine charged as I intentionally try to unplug. From now on I’ll be sure to, at a minimum, charge my phone during the night. I’ll also travel with a charged power bank that I could grab during an emergency.

To Prepare for a Minor Fire

Locate the Fire Extinguisher

Upon check-in we will now be asking about or personally locating a fire extinguisher and any other emergency equipment. If you don’t already know how to use a fire extinguisher, watch a youtube video to get informed.

Have Contact Numbers Ready

Going forward, as soon as we check into an Airbnb I will be sure to put the host’s number into my phone, as well as any other contacts they have in their booklet. I will either put into my phone or make a mental note of emergency numbers, which differ country to country. Call them for help.

What to Do in a Major Fire

Stay Calm

Braden and I both stayed level-headed, communicated clearly and made a plan. I don’t think it was the right plan (we should have left sooner) but it was critical that we didn’t devolve into hysterics and panic.

Grab your Essentials

If they’re within arms reach and you won’t be delayed, grab a bag, throw in whatever valuables or essentials you can (see list above). Obviously this first and foremost includes gathering other people who are on the premises. Everything is replaceable except your life.

Don’t Stay

I don’t know why we lingered and tried to even consider fighting a fire. We should have absolutely gotten the hell out of there the second we realized things were ablaze. Please, if there’s a fire, just RUN.

Have Contact Numbers Ready

Once again, going forward, as soon as we check into an Airbnb I will be sure to put the host’s number into my phone, as well as any other contacts they have in their booklet. I will either put into my phone or make a mental note of emergency numbers, which differ country to country. Call them for help after you have found a safe place to settle.

Airbnb Safety

After experiencing a fire in our Airbnb I did some quick research about Airbnb safety and I believe they are doing a lot to promote fire safety among hosts (mostly in North America), but you can read an article here highlighting some of the risk associated with staying in an Airbnb.

Also, here is an article about another Airbnb fire in a backwoods cabin in Canada if you’re curious to read about their learnings and recommendations.

To be very clear: I am not qualified in any way to share advice, other than what I have learned from my own experience. Please do your own due diligence and research as it applies to your personal travel and preparedness situation.

Stay safe,

xo Alison


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