to the latest national statistics, there were, on average,
3,100 RV fires each year from 2002 through 2005. These
fires caused seven deaths, 62 injuries and approximately
$41 million in damages in each of those years. These
statistics should give all RVers pause. Jaimie Hall
Bruzenak interviews RV fire safety educator Mac McCoy,
better known as "Mac the Fire Guy," to find
out what RVers should know to stay fire-safe on the
Are you prepared for an RV fire?
The sad fact is that most RVers would have to answer "No."
That negligence can have tragic consequences.
If you've never seen an RV fire, you may not
realize how quickly an RV can burn down to the metal frame.
Having propane on board makes the prospect worse, as it
will likely mean an explosion. Barry Kessler, an RVer from
California, was walking his dogs in an RV park one day when
he noticed a motor home smoking. His wife, Jan, posted this
account at an RV bulletin board.
saw two men jump out of a motor home with very small fire
extinguishers. He noticed the motor home was smoking,
and, as he watched, flames shot through the roof. Suddenly
the gas tank blew, then a propane tank blew, and the entire
motor home was engulfed in flames reaching far above the
BOOM of the explosions brought out all the neighbors,
who were trying to put the flames out with those small
fire extinguishers we all carry in our rigs. It was 15
minutes before the fire engines came; they put the flames
out quickly. The family who owned the rig was fine, but
Barry, "They had parked their 'traveling' rig within
three feet of their 5th wheel. Their motor home was totaled.
The 5th wheel only had some surface damage - they were
another vivid account of an RV fire and the resulting
RV fires can start when your RV is moving or
when it is parked. Some common causes of RV fires are:
- leaking fuel lines and connections
- shorts in the 12-volt electrical system
- refrigerator fires
- pinhole fuel-line leaks in diesel-pusher
- dry wheel bearings in 5th wheels and
The latter two are especially dangerous because
you may not realize there is a fire until another motorist
gets your attention.
Regular maintenance and inspection of vulnerable
systems and devices are critical, of course, but sometimes
fires happen despite your best efforts. In the event of a
fire, are you really prepared? To be certain, you should be
able to answer "Yes" to all three of the following
1. Do you have an evacuation plan?
Fire safety expert Mac McCoy, affectionately
known as "Mac
the Fire Guy" says, "The most important step
is to have an evacuation plan." Sounds obvious. But do
you know where your escape hatches are in the event your door
is blocked? Do you know how to open them? Do your children?
Can you fit through them? Can you open the escape window or
vent in the dark? If you can see flames, you could have less
than 20 seconds to get everyone out of the RV. That's
not much time.
Once when George and I were in Big Bend National
Park, the door would not open in our fifth wheel. I went to
use the rear escape route-a window that comes out-and started
out headfirst before realizing I would land on my arms and
head. Escaping a fire is not the time to figure that out.
What's more, I barely fit. Could my husband George have squeezed
Another point, when traveling, is to maintain
situation awareness. Always know approximately where you are
so if there is an onboard fire you can summon help quickly
to the right location. One time when Mark
and Megan were on the road
in Virginia, their motor home caught fire on a rural highway,
in a rain storm, and it took Megan a few minutes to remember
exactly they were in order to direct the local fire responders
- Mark who might have known, was pre-occupied with fighting
the fire to be able to offer any help in pinpointing their
2. Are your smoke, liquid propane and carbon
monoxide detectors located properly and in working order?
You should have a carbon monoxide (CO) detector
on the ceiling or an inside wall of your bedroom, located
at least four feet above the floor and eight inches below
the ceiling. If you have a separate bedroom, you should have
a smoke detector there, too, in addition to the one in the
kitchen area. Liquid propane (LP) detectors come installed
in the RV; if you buy a used RV, make sure the LP detector
"All detectors are not equal," McCoy
says. Smoke detectors approved for RV use have to meet different
standards than regular detectors. They are tested at a wider
range of temperatures and for longer periods of time than
household detectors, and are tested against animal-fat smoke,
vibration and salt spray. When you buy replacement detectors,
be sure you get RV-approved models.
About 75 percent of RV fires have their source
in the 12-volt system, and they usually smolder long before
they burst into flames. In fact, many RVers who have had an
electrical fire report that their fire detectors never went
off. For this reason, McCoy recommends the dual-sensor, battery-operated
smoke alarm by Kidde, which uses both photoelectric and ionization
sensors. According to the data sheet, photoelectric sensing
alarms may detect visible fire particles (associated with
smoldering fires) sooner than ionization sensing alarms, while
ionization sensing alarms may detect invisible fire particles
(associated with flaming fires) sooner than photoelectric
sensing alarms. Having the protection of a dual-sensor alarm
increases your safety margin.
McCoy advises replacing your detectors every
five to seven years no matter how long your guarantee (it
is usually the batteries that are guaranteed, anyway, not
the detector itself). Clean and test them monthly. That dust
you see in your rig? It gets in your detectors and could keep
them from operating properly.
Advice for Avoiding Common Fires
Both Norcold and
Dometic have issued recalls for their refrigerators
due to fire danger. Because of this, McCoy
advises traveling with the propane tank turned
Diesel pushers catch
fire more often than other RVs. A tiny pinhole
leak can cause a fire that may not be spotted
quickly. McCoy recommends the Cold Fire Super
Systems engine compartment extinguishing systems.
Recently McCoy has found a product he likes
even better: FireAde AFFF Foam. See his
Web site for more information.
that you repack wheel bearings according to
the manufacturer's instructions, using synthetic
wheel bearing grease.
3. Do you know what kind(s) of fire extinguishers
you have and how to operate them?
Fires are categorized into five classes according
to the fuel or heat source (see sidebar). Some fire-extinguishing
agents can be used on more than one class of fire; others
would be dangerous to use on certain classes of fires. McCoy
recommends two fire extinguishers with new technology, either
of which can be used on Class A, B, D and K fires. Note:
the only way to extinguish a Class C (electrical) fire is
to turn the power off at its source.
If a fire starts in the kitchen when you are
there, you might be able to put it out. Some cautions:
Carry three extinguishers - one in the kitchen
area, one in the bedroom, and one in an unlocked storage compartment
or your tow vehicle - and learn how to use them. Take
a fire safety class at an RV rally, or get training with a
vendor or a local fire department.
Don't take chances. Maintain your RV and engine,
purchase good safety equipment and check it regularly, and
practice your escape plan. It's a small price to pay.