by Mac McCoy
It started as a normal day. Jim and Betty Whitaker began their trek to New England to experience the changing of the leaves – visual proof that autumn was here. Several hours after leaving their home in Pennsylvania, Betty glanced into the side-view mirror and noticed a faint mist streaming out from the rear of the coach. Within minutes of Betty’s discovery, the couple was standing behind their coach, watching it – along with the fire extinguisher they kept in the kitchen– go up in flames. In less than 25 minutes, their “home away from home” was reduced to a twisted mass of black metal.
Though understandably shaken, the Whitakers knew they were lucky – they were fortunate enough to spot trouble as it happened and were able to get out alive. And they no longer believe “that will never happen to us,” which is the first step to becoming truly fire-safe on the road.
At best, a fire in your coach can delay or ruin a camping trip. At worst it can mean injury, financial loss and even death. Unfortunately, RV fires are one of the largest causes of RV loss in America today. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), fire departments, RV repair shops and insurance carriers estimate there are approximately 6,300 RV fires annually. Deaths resulting from RV fires are estimated at 5 to 20 each year and RV Alliance America statistics show half of fires erupt while the RV is parked.
While the causes of RV fires vary widely, there are identifiable trends. Engine and electrical fires are consistently the greatest cause of loss. Engine compartments, including electrical, flammable-combustible gases and liquids, are the cause of origin roughly 70% of the time.
To be safe, plan a monthly fire safety inspection for your RV. Be sure to check the engine compartment and inspect all radiator and coolant hoses for firmness, clamp tightness, swelling and signs of leaking. Replace hoses on a periodic basis or as needed. A pin hole leak in a radiator or heater hose can spray antifreeze on hot engine parts. Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol concentrate and water. When the water boils off the remaining ethylene glycol can self-ignite at 782 degrees.
A hard-working engine manifold can get to over 900 degrees. The heavy insulation in the compartment reflects the heat toward the top of the engine, and a fire can easily break out. With the design of most coaches, getting to the top of the engine is all but impossible. Remember if you cannot get to the top of the engine, you will have great difficulty in putting out the fire. If you find any signs of radiator problems, have them repaired by a qualified person.
After a long haul involving a steep grade, don’t come to a stop and turn your engine off without allowing your vehicle time to cool down. Your transmission fuel temperature could be around 350 degrees, and your brakes will definitely be too hot to allow a quick stop. Turning your engine off too suddenly causes the temperature in your transmission to continue to rise. With your engine off, your coolant is no longer bleeding the heat from your engine. Instead, allow for a five-minute cool-down period. A hot exhaust pipe from your engine or generator can also run hot enough to start a fire if you drive in high, dry weeds.
Tires and brakes are the culprit in almost 20% of fires. A dragging brake can create enough friction to ignite a tire or brake fluid. Some of the worst fires are those caused when one tire of a dual or tandem pair goes flat and then scuffs and ignites, long before the driver feels any change in handling. At each stop, give your tires at least an eyeball check. Remember a pressure gauge reading on hot tires isn’t accurate. Tap duals with a club and listen for a difference in sound; you can often tell if one is going soft.
The remaining causes of fires vary widely from faulty generators, fuel leaks, solar power problems, cooking carelessness, propane leaks, spontaneous combustion in damp charcoal and certainly a range of unknown origins.
When cooking, use even more caution in your coach than you do at home. In a compact galley, all combustibles – from paper towels to curtains – are apt to be closer to the stove. Pilot lights and burners should never be lit when the vehicle is being driven. You never know when you’ll happen upon a highway accident where fuel has been spilled.
Grease, oil, and road dust build up on engines and transmissions, making them run hotter. The grime itself usually doesn’t burn, but if there’s a sudden fuel leak or short-circuited wire, a stubborn fire could start. Keep your coach’s underpinnings clean, and your RV will run cooler, more economically, longer.
Another potential hazard is batteries, since they produce explosive gases. Keep sparks, flame, and cigarettes away. Do not produce sparks with cable clamps or tools, and ventilate when charging or using in an enclosed space. Always shield your eyes when working near batteries. Lastly, keep the vent caps tight.
RV interiors are constructed with a variety of synthetic, often flammable materials. They burn hot and fast and emit harmful gases. Additionally, while the coach is burning, diesel fuel is present along with other flammable liquids and gases. Some parts of the coach can explode when heated by fire, sending debris a great distance.
Fire extinguishers can be valuable when a fire occurs, but you should be aware there are limitations when using them. It is important you attempt to extinguish the fire only within your reasonable means and don’t cause greater tragedy by playing hero. When fighting the fire is no longer safe, evacuate cautiously and immediately. Avoid unnecessary delay.
Don’t wait until you have a fire to develop a fire plan. Devising a plan and practicing it will help immensely if you need to make emergency decisions. The first part of the plan should include determining two escape routes – one in the front of the coach and one in the rear. Be sure adults and older children know how to dial 911 or 0, or reach help on any CB, VHF, or ham radio. Have periodic fire drills so everyone is prepared should a fire occur.
Have at least three fire extinguishers for your coach – one at the entrance, one in the sleeping compartment and one outside of your coach, either in a storage compartment or in your towed vehicle. Have your extinguishers in visible and easy-to-reach places, located near but not in the hazard areas. Check monthly to confirm they are in working condition, and know how to use them. If you don’t know how to tell if your extinguisher is working or don’t know how to use your extinguisher, go to your local fire department for assistance. Also be sure your smoke detector is working and replace the batteries twice a year.
It is important to teach family members how to unhook electricity and close propane valves. Many times we travel with grandchildren or friends who have never been in a coach. Take the time to give them a safety walk through. Show all passengers how the door works from the inside, how to get out of your RV if the main door is unusable and the locations of all your fire extinguishers and how they work. Don’t forget to review how to safely unhook from shore power or how to shut off the 12v system and the inverter.
Be assured that few coach fires start from the propane tank itself. However, if a fire starts and your coach has propane, the propane can rapidly escalate the fire. The adult travelers with you need to know how to shut off the tank(s) during an emergency. Remember there is no real need to travel with your propane tank(s) on. All modern coach refrigerators will stay cold for many hours without propane or electricity.
Should the worst happen and you do experience a fire loss, it is important to have taken an annual inventory and photos of your coach’s contents. But be sure to store your list in a secured location away from the coach, perhaps in a safe deposit box or with a family member. Review your coach insurance policy to be sure you have your personal contents covered at their replacement cost.
You’ll also want to keep all receipts for coach improvements in a separate location so you can document the value of your coach. Otherwise, you could be bound to the average market value without the cost of your improvements at the time of a loss settlement. Lastly, be sure your insurance coverage includes living expenses in case you need lodging, meals, or transportation to get back home.
For Jim and Betty Whitaker, the cause of the fire was never determined; however, the Whitakers have now devised a personal safety checklist that they faithfully complete before every trip. Both Jim and Betty view their fire as a wake-up call and are now believers in this could happen to you, too.
Mac McCoy has been a firefighter for more than three decades and, most recently, the Fire Service Training Coordinator for the State of Oregon. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Fire Science and holds a master’s degree in Fire Administration. Since March of 1999, he and his wife Sheri have traveled full-time in their RV conducting Fire & Life Safety Seminars for AON at more than 30 state, regional and national RV rallies.