RV fire safety – it’s something we don’t think about all the time, and yet it’s one of the most critical pieces of preparedness an RVer can undertake.
As we roll down the road in our homes-on-wheels, often carrying multiple types of fuel in, electrical components throughout the rig, and appliances that use both electricity and fuel, it’s imperative that we understand how to protect ourselves against fires or even explosions.
This post is dedicated to RV fire safety – something we could all use a little review on from time to time.
- 1) How Common Are RV Fires?
- 2) Where Do Most RV Fires Start?
- 3) What Is the Cause of the Majority of RV Fires?
- 4) When Do Most RV Fires Occur?
- 5) A Note About RV Fire Safety Data
- 6) Top Tips for RV Fire Prevention
- 7) If There’s a Fire In My RV, What Should I Do?
- 8) A Final Note About RV Fire Safety
How Common Are RV Fires?
Data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) suggests that there are around 20,000 RV fires every year. Those fires include an average of 24 deaths and 64 injuries.
Clearly, this is an estimate using averages. But no matter how you look at it, there are far too many RV fires every year.
As more and more RVs are sold and hit the road, more and more fires are being reported.
Back in 2016-2018, for example, (the most recent data provided by the U.S. Fire Administration or USFA at the time of the writing of this post), 3,700 RV fires were reported to fire departments in the United States annually. These fires resulted in what the USFA estimates are 15 deaths, 100 injuries, and $58,500,000 in losses. (Yes, that’s 58 MILLION.) You can see that data here.
All of this suggests two things:
- There are far too many RV fires annually.
- The number of RV fires is increasing as more RVers take to the road.
Where Do Most RV Fires Start?
According to the USFA, these are the leading areas of fire origin in the years 2016-2018 (again, the most recent data offered by the USFA):
- Engine area, running gear, wheel area (28 %)
- Other vehicle area (15.9%)
- Operator, passenger area of vehicle (9.8%)
- Cooking area (7.5%)
- Vehicle exterior (6.8%)
- Other area of fire origin (3.6%)
- Cargo, trunk area (3%)
What Is the Cause of the Majority of RV Fires?
Again, according to the USFA using their data from the period 2016-2018, 37% of RV fires were ignited by unintentional actions, and 15% of RV fires were due to failure of equipment or of a heat source.
Interestingly, acts of nature resulted in less than 1% of RV fires during that time period, and the cause of ignition remains undetermined in fully 24% of those RV fires.
According to a 2020 report by the NFPA, the cause of ignition categories are broken down into fairly specific areas. Where the cause of an RV fire was attributed to “Mechanical Failure or Malfunction”, for example, the category was further broken to include the following:
- Automatic control failure
- Manual control failure
- Leak or break, including from containers or pipes (excludes operational deficiencies & spills)
- Worn out
- Backfire (excluding fires originating as a result of hot catalytic converters)
- Improper fuel used, including the use of gasoline in a kerosene heater, and similar faults
- Mechanical failure or malfunction, other
Entries in the category “Electrical Failure or Malfunction” included the following:
- Water-caused short circuit arc
- Short-circuit arc from mechanical damage
- Short-circuit arc from defective or worn insulation
- Unspecified short circuit arc
- Arc from faulty contact or broken connector, including broken power lines and loose connections
- Arc or spark from operating equipment, switch, or electric fence
- Fluorescent light ballast
- Electrical failure or malfunction, other
The report includes additional specifics related to heat sources, equipment, etc., and you can find the full report (which is extensive) here, but we wanted to highlight these particular RV fire sources because they illuminate the need for consistent attention to the proper maintenance of your RV, both professionally and on your own.
Our readers and YouTube viewers are well aware that we practice regular DIY maintenance. We’ve posted on several routine RV maintenance tasks that many RVers can do to stay on top of things, and we’ve also posted about the RV maintenance and repair that we leave to the pros.
RV fire safety reports show clearly that staying on top of your RV maintenance with proper inspections, maintenance, and repairs conducted by certified professionals is critical to your safety and that of your family.
When Do Most RV Fires Occur?
Data from fires from the 2016-2018 period shows that most RV fires occurred during the afternoon hours, particularly from 1:00PM – 3:00PM, (and least often in the early morning hours between 4:00AM – 5:00AM).
As might be anticipated due to increasing camping during the weekends and summer months, most RV fires occurred on Fridays and Saturdays, May through August.
All of this data is available in PDF format here.
A Note About RV Fire Safety Data
Clearly, some RV fire safety data is outdated, and finding current RV safety data is confusing at best. However, one thing is clear: as RV sales increase, so do RV fires.
To put the data into perspective a bit, in 2018 (the end of the most recent USFA data period), the number of RV shipments reached 483,672.
According to the RV Industry Association (RVIA), while the year-end total of RV shipments for 2020 was only 430,412 units, shipments for 2021 increased to 576,065. That’s an increase of 33.8% in a single year. (You can find the entire 2021 market report from the RVIA here if you’re interested.)
As we write this in early 2022, we’re continuing to see a clear increase in interest in RVing, and nobody’s happier about that than we are (although we hope there’s a parallel increase in new RV park construction, so these new people have somewhere to go!). We share the concern of the NFPA, however, that RV fires may rise as usual with this increase. So, let’s get into some fire safety tips to keep you and your family safer as you enjoy the adventures RVing and camping provide.
Top Tips for RV Fire Prevention
Check Your Detectors Regularly
This would include your smoke detector, propane detector, and carbon monoxide detector. Regularly replace batteries in any detector that is battery-operated, and check the dates on any hard-wired detectors throughout your RV.
We talked about this extensively in our post, “What Is an RV Propane Detector?”, and if you haven’t read that post, you should. Propane detector replacement is critical, and here’s why:
Check the Date On Your RV Fire Extinguishers Regularly
Working fire extinguishers are another critical component of RV fire safety. While it should go without saying, fire extinguishers (particularly if you’ve never had to use them) are often forgotten. They don’t last forever and need to be replaced when they’ve either been used or have reached their expiration date. Check your fire extinguishers TODAY.
According to the USFA, you should have fire extinguishers made for use on Class B and Class C fires to cover the typical types of fires that occur on RVs.
Prioritize the Regular Maintenance of Your RV
Remember that the areas where fires originated most frequently were in the engine area, running gear, and wheel area. Keeping your RV closely inspected and well maintained could well be your greatest protective measure.
Some of the important areas of concentration in terms of regular maintenance might be:
- Have your RV brakes – or the brakes of your travel trailer – inspected regularly. Excessive friction caused by brake drag can cause overheating and even fire.
- Check your engine compartment for fluid leaks. Clean up any spills.
- Check hoses for cracks or damage and tighten any loose clamps.
- Check your engine compartment for exposed, damaged, or chewed wires, as excessive heat could cause them to ignite.
- Check & maintain your RVs tire pressures. Underinflated and/or overweight tires can heat up dramatically while underway, leading to the potential for a blowout and/or tire fire (which are VERY difficult to extinguish).
Maintain All Fuel Sources and Appliances Regularly
In addition to the importance of the propane detector replacement we mentioned earlier, your RV propane regulator literally exists for your safety. It’s absolutely critical that you have a working RV propane regulator, and it’s not a bad idea to keep a spare on hand.
Propane may be involved in the operation of your RV refrigerator and water heater and may be the main fuel source for your RV’s furnace. You may recall from our post, “How Does an RV Propane Furnace Work?” that there are a number of components involved in the safe operation of your RV furnace. Keeping this appliance and all of your fuel-fed RV appliances in good working condition is a matter of RV fire safety.
And don’t forget your gas or diesel-fueled generator!
Keep Your Electrical System in Good Working Order
Checking all visible wiring (including in your engine bay as previously mentioned), especially after your RV has been in storage for the winter, is a very important piece of RV fire safety. Rodents can chew wires or build nests, and the resulting damage can cause an electrical fire.
Monitor your electrical system and tend to anything that requires repair IMMEDIATELY.
Another very important part of your electrical system involves the part that connects you to shore power in campgrounds – your RV power cord. Make sure your power cord is in good condition, and use caution when plugging into shore power pedestals wherever you camp. Loose connections, especially in older power pedestals at campgrounds, aren’t all that uncommon, and you need to protect yourself and your RV. Inspect the pedestal before you plug in.
And consider RV low voltage protection such as that offered by the Hughes Autoformer, and other electrical protection using a device like the Hughes Power Watchdog:
And it never hurts to review the specifics of safely plugging in an RV, including into your household electricity:
Use Caution Storing Combustibles
Lighter fluid, propane, butane, citronella oil, WD40, and even charcoal are all highly flammable. Use caution and common sense storing these items in your RV.
If There’s a Fire In My RV, What Should I Do?
We’ll share with you what we learned from the recommendations of the USFA with regard to what actions to take should a fire occur in your RV.
Get everyone out of and away from the RV. In terms of preparation, you should always have an escape plan that everyone on board knows. This should include a plan for when you’re on the road, and a plan for when you’re stationary in the RV, for example sleeping at night.
While it may be tempting, resist the urge to go back to the RV to retrieve personal belongings. Get yourself and your family (pets included!) out of and away from the RV and do NOT return to it. Nothing is more valuable than your life and safety and that of your family. Everything else can be replaced.
Once you and your family are a safe distance from the RV, call 911 and tell them where you are and what’s happening.
If the fire is small enough and in a location where you can safely use your fire extinguisher, do so from a safe distance. Otherwise, await the assistance of the fire department.
If you suspect a fire under the hood or in a “trunk” or storage area, don’t open the hood or door. Doing so allows air to rush in, which can quickly create a larger fire and burn anyone nearby, especially the person who just opened the hood/trunk.
A Final Note About RV Fire Safety
RV fire safety is a critically important aspect of traveling by RV. In fact, traveling in any vehicle requires the responsibility of doing everything we can to be as safe as we can, and this includes fire safety.
Those few extra minutes (or hours) required to make sure your rig is safe, and that you’re well protected against (and well prepared for) a fire emergency is an investment you’ll never regret.
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Saturday 23rd of April 2022
Wow! I am gobsmacked at how may RV fires happen every year. I always figures a few hundred nationwide, never even considered anything in the thousands.
But I am also aware how fast an RV fire can become very dangerous.
True story: Last month some friends were on a motorcycle ride in southern California. As they neared the top of a long hill the saw a 45' DP Class A motorhome pulled off the side of the road with thick black smoke belching out of the engine area.
As they slowed and rode past they saw the driver sitting in his seat punching numbers in his cell, his wife sitting in the passenger seat with her bare feet up on the dash. They had no idea that their rig was on fire.
My friends stopped, got the couple out of the coach and then rescued the dogs. In about 2 minutes smoke had started to invade the back bedroom of the RV and was moving forward by the time the doges were found. By the 4 minute mark fire was in the bedroom and very quickly moving forward.
Photos taken 10 minutes after the motorcycles stopped showed flames coming from the RV side windows and moments later even the front windows.
My motorcycle friends stayed with the couple for some time - the RV driver said that the RV had lost power near the top of the hill and he was calling friends in an RV a couple of miles ahead. Everyone there was shaken up as how quick this couple lost everything they owned.
I carry 5 fire extinguishers on board: 3 at the front door, big one in the basement and two in the bedroom. I'm ready for a fire but also recognize that one has to be aware of the threats before they would be useful.
Gay Tacoma Washington
Saturday 23rd of April 2022
Oh shit! I hope this hasn't happened to either of you! That's serious stuff to have to deal with. Given how little area you have to deal with, you may, or may not have much time to escape once the fire starts. I hope you have a working fire extinguisher to put out the fire.
Saturday 23rd of April 2022
Knock on wood... but, no... this hasn't ever happened to us. And, yes, we have SEVERAL working fire extinguishers on board, so we're being safe! 😉
Saturday 23rd of April 2022
Two additional safety tips: if you have a class B be certain your back door is not blocked by a bike and bike rack or cargo carrier while you art sleeping, it will block your exit. Also, I’ve seen class A parked close enough that when the slides on each are extended the bedroom escape exit is unusable.
Saturday 23rd of April 2022
Great advice, Steve!