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RVing with Alice & Jaimie

Are You Fire-Safe on the Road? by Jaimie Hall Bruzenak

According 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 road.

RV on fire

Motorhome engulfed in flames

1 of 6

Photo courtesy of Mac McCoy

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.

Barry 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 trees.

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 terribly shaken.

Said 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 lucky!"

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 engine compartments
  • dry wheel bearings in 5th wheels and trailers

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 questions.

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 through?

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 location.

U.S. System of Fire Classification by Fuel Type

Class A

Ordinary combustibles such as wood, paper, cloth, trash and plastics
Class B Flammable liquids such as gasoline, petroleum oil and paint and flammable gases such as propane and butane
Class C Energized electrical equipment such as motors, transformers and appliances (shut off the power and the Class C fire becomes one of the other classes of fire)
Class D Combustible and flammable metals such as potassium, sodium, aluminum and magnesium.
Class K Fires in cooking oils and greases such as animal and vegetable fats

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 is operating.

"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.

Mac McCoy's 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 off.

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.

McCoy advises 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.

  • ColdFire Wetting Agent, from Cold Fire Super System: available in handheld extinguishers that are effective and environmentally friendly.
  • Foam/Wetting Agent from FireAde2000: combines the benefits of six chemical technologies all in one product.

If a fire starts in the kitchen when you are there, you might be able to put it out. Some cautions:

  • Nationwide Insurance Company advises RV owners to keep clothes, linens and other combustibles far from the kitchen area. Paper towels and curtains are big fire hazards when they are close to the stove, so be alert when cooking around them.
  • You can fight a small kitchen fire, but if your refrigerator catches fire, McCoy says, "Get out."
  • Tony Cornett, called "The Firedude," an RVer and former fire captain and fire/arson investigator says, "If you have a small fire and the fire cannot be contained within a minute or maybe two, it isn't going to be and you need to get out. An RV can be replaced. You can't!"

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.

Jaimie Hall Bruzenak
(Links updated 11/8/21, RTA)


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