Sep 6, 2011


The topic of RV fires has been on my mind the past few months. You may remember that we have good friends who lost their motorhome to fire last September.  This past June popular online bloggers Ed and Marilyn had a fire that totaled their 5th wheel as they were toting it through Missouri. Last winter, a number of RVers reported that someone's RV burned to the ground out in the desert around Quartzsite. And in the past few days, near Yosemite National Park, a motorhome caught fire, set the surrounding hillside on fire, and blackened thousands of acres.

A couple years ago we drove through a campground, just checking it out, and found a completely burnt out chassis of a 5th wheel, surrounded by yellow police tape, sitting on a campsite while neighboring campers carried on normally... a strange and eerie sight to say the least. We never heard more about that one.

While the chance of having a fire in any RV is probably small, it's certainly statistically greater than a fire in a fixed house. And fire is a much bigger concern with RVs due to their light construction, flammable and toxic materials, mobility (running gear, engine, fuels), and the dreaded propane refrigerator. Due to their relatively small size, once a fire gets going the entire unit can be involved quickly. If you're inside your RV when a fire starts there should be but one reaction... get out. Fighting the fire, I'm told, should be a distant secondary effort.

But some things bothered me as I pondered this subject. Probably half the time we spend inside our rig we're in bed (comon... get your mind back on the subject...). And if a fire happens while we're in bed (say, the refrigerator malfunctions in the middle of the night... like our friends in Rockport) what do we do?  Since the bedroom and the bus-house door are on opposite ends of our 40' rig, the likelihood is that the fire will be blocking our normal exit path. Hmmm.

Escape Window: Well, first off, we've got that escape window back there in the bedroom... the one that says "Emergency Exit"... the one the RV dealer told us never to open because "it'll never seal properly again". When we took delivery of the bus-house, the safety director rejected that advice and we did open it a couple time to see how it worked (and, by the way, it sealed back up just fine). But we've never practiced actually exiting through that opening... and I see a number of things that could cause problems. First off... it's high off the ground... ours is 7 feet and the bedroom exit from many 5th wheels is higher yet. Do you have a fear of heights?  Do you dive out head first? Turn around and back through it feet first? Isn't the hinged window going to be in the way, banging the back of your head, as you wriggle your way out? Do each of you fend for yourself, or do you somehow help each other out? Will you be able to solve these problems quickly in a panic situation? Unless you've practiced, you really don't know.

Last week, at Escapade, I attended the fire safety workshop presented by Mac McCoy... the RV Fire Guy. According to Mac, you've got maybe 20 seconds to get out of a burning RV before smoke, fumes, or flames will incapacitate you and you'll likely die. He's a strong proponent of actually practicing going through the escape window... so you'll know how it's done and what works best for you. Unfortunately, going through that window does require some bending, twisting, and other contortions of one's body, and that means a lot of  people we see along the RVing path will not be capable, for one reason or another, of using this means of escape.

So, besides a fire drill to practice going out the escape window, what else can we do?

Smoke Alarms:  Our 40 foot motorhome came with one smoke detector/alarm. It's located way up front near the door. It might wake us up... but it might not. So, in order to have some redundancy and to possibly buy a few more seconds of time in a real fire, I bought another, the best one I could find, and installed in on the ceiling of the bedroom. I check both of them for function every couple weeks.

Fire Extinguishers: The most common fire extinguishers out there are dry chemical types. The BC-type are usually filled with sodium bicarbonate, common baking soda, which works well but is messy (powder everywhere!). The ABC-type are filled with mono-ammonium phosphate... which is not only messy but the residue becomes highly corrosive and toxic when the chemical comes into contact with heat... fire. Users are cautioned to not use ABC-type units near electronics or other sensitive equipment nor should they be used around people (!!). Less common in the USA but very popular in Europe and the rest of the world are foam-type extinguishers, which are non-toxic, very effective, and the use of which creates virtually no additional mess.

The bus-house came delivered with one dry chemical (BC-type) extinguisher... and it, like the smoke alarm, is mounted right next to the front door, at the extreme opposite end of the camper from where we sleep... (with the fire-bomb fridge right in the middle). If the main reason for an extinguisher is to get you a few more moments of time to get out, wouldn't it be handy to have one in the bedroom???  where you spend so much time? It might buy you a few seconds while your trying to figure out that dang escape window.

Of course, a fire extinguisher can come in handy if you're right there when a small fire starts... say, in a pan on the cooktop. We've had a cooktop fire, not in the bus-house but in our fixed no-wheels home back in Washington a few years ago, and the experience taught us two things: first, always have a cover for the pan (or wok in our case) within easy reach when cooking so you can smother any fire while its still manageable. Second, dry chemical fire extinguishers, when used, will probably put out a small fire, but will make a tremendous mess throughout the rest of the house. There will be dry chemical residue in every nook, cranny, and crack in the entire house.

Something else to consider from Ed and Marilyn's blog... they found they didn't have enough fire extinguisher capability. Ed almost had the fire out when their one fire extinguisher emptied and quit. If they had another, who knows, they may have been able to save the rig. As it was, all they could do was wait and watch it burn.

So, with all that information rolling around in my head, we ordered up some more fire extinguishers... five of em to be exact... four of the the foam type and an additional dry chemical BC-type.

 The new big foam extinguisher is now located where the original dry chemical unit was located by the front door. I moved the dry chemical extinguisher to the basement storage bay next to the front door... so it's accessible from the outside. That bay stays unlocked while we're traveling. The other matching dry chemical (BC-type) unit was mounted in the trunk of the car. Our intention is that the dry chemical units will be used only outside.

Three of the new extinguishers are the smaller disposable foam type. I have one mounted on a wall in the kitchen area (away from the cooktop) so it's easy to grab and use in seconds. The other two are back in the bedroom, one mounted on a wall near the escape window, visible and easily grabbed and used; and the other in a cabinet next to my side of the bed. I'm told that the foam-type extinguishers can be used to wet down oneself in order to buy a few extra seconds during an escape from a real fire... in the event you haven't already wet yourself enough.

A note of caution: in the past we had purchased a couple of the First Alert Tundra disposable type fire extinguishers... the red aerosol can type you see at Walmart or your local hardware store. However, after one of the units aged out beyond it's expiration date, I thought I'd use it, for practice, before tossing it out. But when I did so, it failed to operate at all. The propellant inside the can was either never there or had escaped somehow during it's life. If we had needed that unit for a real fire, it would have cost us precious seconds while we figured out it wasn't going to work at all. Consumer Reports rated them unacceptable for this same reason.

We're not experts on these things, but we feel better knowing we have a few more tools at our disposal than we did before... and that we're mentally more prepared in the event of a real fire.

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