From KQED News: Tech Giants Respond to Wildfires Close to Home

October 11, 2017, By Michelle Cheng

As deadly wildfires continue to rip through Northern California, Bay Area-based tech giants are responding to the crisis with digital features and by working with local communities.

Since Airbnb activated its disaster response tool to help those impacted by the fires on Monday, more than 200 people have signed up to host people who have been displaced. As part of that program, hosts in nearby areas are able to make their spaces available for free through Oct. 30.

Lara McCole and her husband, who have been Airbnb hosts for two years, decided to open their East Richmond home to evacuees Tuesday morning after hearing about it on the news. McCole said that several evacuees contacted them within a few hours, including a Santa Rosa couple who lost their home to the fire. The couple is now confirmed to stay with them later this week.

“It’s a great opportunity for the community to support other people in the community,” said McCole, whose sister in Southern California also recently evacuated because of a fire. “A lot of people just told us their stories. I wish I had more availability and can take more people in. … It’s heartbreaking.”

While San Francisco began imposing short-term rental regulations on Airbnb a few years ago, the city is currently allowing people to bypass the normal regulations, said Lauren Jones, San Francisco’s Department of Technology communications director.

“We may have different approaches on how to tackle the problem, but we ultimately have the same goal, which is to serve the residents, businesses and visitors,” said Jones.

In the past few days, other tech companies have responded with online tools to help those in need — which helps with the widespread power outage. Since the fires began, Facebook activated its Safety Check feature in many of the affected areas.

Google has launched an SOS alert on its search engines, which compiles updates, maps and links to resources.

While many roads continue to be shut down, Lyft is offering relief rides to assist riders from the evacuation sites to hospitals and vice versa.

Due to the poor air quality in the city, Uber is offering free and discounted rides to and from certain San Francisco Public Library branches serving as filtered air centers.

The ride-hailing company is also partnering with Project Open Hand to provide free rides for seniors and low-income individuals.

“We continue to monitor the situation and will be adjusting our response, depending on the conditions and needs in the emergency area,” said an Uber spokesperson.

Many of the tech giants are also donating to local communities and organizations, which is one of the most effective ways in times of crisis.

Facebook is contributing $1 million to local organizations in Northern and Southern California responding to the fires, according to Facebook’s spokesperson. Google says it’s donating $500,000 to support those impacted by the fires.


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