RV Fire Safety

Fire can consume an RV in a matter of minutes. Having a plan and the proper tools to deal with a fire can save your RV—and your life.

Man’s quest for fire has been around since the beginning of time and fire can be a good thing. It can be used to cook food, heat your living space, and add a bit of ambience to a living space or a campsite. However, fire represents a risk that RVers need to keep top of mind. An RV fire can spread in a fast and furious manner leading to devastating damage, injury, and even loss of life.

RVs have numerous potential sources of fires—RV refrigerators, propane appliances, space heaters, washers and driers, gasoline or diesel engines, and electrical wiring that take a beating when traveling on less-than-ideal highways. So, every RV owner needs to develop a safety plan that covers how to deal with a fire. This involves fire extinguishers as well as the necessary detection devices and an escape plan.

Space heaters are a potential source of RV fires © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Your first decision

If a fire breaks out, you’ll be faced with an important and immediate decision: Fight or flight. Do you stay and try to put out the fire or do you get out and wait for the fire department? Your safety and that of your loved ones should always be your highest priority. You can replace your RV and the stuff in it but you can’t replace someone’s life. And it’s important to know that the most common cause of death in a fire is not from the flames but from the smoke and the toxins created by burning material—especially the synthetic material common in today’s RVs.

Since it’s a natural reaction to want to try to douse a flame a bit of forethought can help you make the best decision when you’re under pressure and the clock is ticking. It may be possible to handle a small fire with an extinguisher but if the fire is larger or if the fire prevents you from accessing an extinguisher, it’s time to exit the RV.

A smoke alarm can save your life © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Creating and practicing an escape plan is crucial. Smoke and heat build up fast during a fire, so it’s vital to know where the exits are. Practice getting to them so it becomes second nature. Exiting via the entry door is the ideal choice and some newer Class A motorhomes offer emergency egress doors. Still, you may need to go out through one of the emergency exit windows. However, these may not be as simple as they seem. Getting to them—and getting through them—can be a challenge. This is something you should practice because you won’t have time to figure it out during an actual fire.

Open the exit windows a couple of times a year to make sure they still function properly. It’s best to go out through the window feet first and belly down. The drop to the ground can be long. Some people move a picnic table next to the emergency window to lessen the distance.

Remember, time is not on your side in an emergency.

RV refrigerators are a potential source of RV fires © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fire Basics

At its core, fire is a rapid chemical reaction that requires three key elements: fuel, oxygen, and heat, sometimes referred to as the fire triangle. If you remove any one of these elements, the fire cannot be sustained.

>> Related article: 10 RV Fire Dangers and How to Avoid Them

RVs contain an overabundance of fuel sources. They are made with large amounts of wood and composite materials that use extensive amounts of glues and insulating foams. They also have plenty of wiring which has flammable insulation and most have propane on board and—in the case of motorhomes—gasoline or diesel fuel. Of course, oxygen is readily available in the air, so all that’s needed to complete the fire triangle is heat.

Materials that serve as fuel need to be raised only to their combustible temperature for ignition to occur. An electrical short can create intense heat in a wire which can burn insulation or ignite surrounding material such as wood paneling or foam insulation. A loose connection can also throw sparks that ignite fuels. Gases or flammable liquids that reach open flames or hot surfaces can flash and ignite.

Space heaters are a potential source of RV fires © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fire classifications

RVs are required to be equipped with a fire extinguisher, per National Fire Protection Association code. However, it only needs to meet the minimum requirements. So, fire extinguishers that come with RVs tend to be undersized and may not be equal to the task. While all fires may seem the same, they are not. Fires fall into three different classifications:

  • Class A fires use solid combustible fuels (other than metals) such as wood, paper, fabric, and plastics. Class A fires leave behind ash so think of the word ash to help remember what a Class A fire is. To extinguish a Class A fire, you can either separate it from its oxygen source or cool it to below its flash point. This is the easiest fire to extinguish and water works well because it cools the material below its combustible temperature.
  • Class B fires involve flammable liquids such as gasoline, oil, grease, diesel fuel, and alcohol. Liquids boil so think of the word boil to remember what Class B fires are. These fires cannot be extinguished with water because the liquid fuel floats on the surface of the water and spreads to other areas making the situation worse.
  • Class C electrical fires are caused by energized circuits. If the circuit is live consider it a Class C fire. Note that the wire itself doesn’t burn but the insulation and things surrounding it do. Electrical wires conduct current so associate the word current with a Class C fire. Using a water-type extinguisher on a Class C fire can create an electrical shock hazard. Once the circuit is de-energized, however, you can treat it as a Class A fire.
RVs contain an abundance of potential fuel sources © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fire extinguisher ratings

Fire extinguishers are rated by an alphanumeric system. The letter stands for the fire classification(s) that the extinguisher is rated to handle while the number in front of the letter indicates how large of a fire it is designed to handle. The number preceding the letter A is a water equivalency rating with each A equal to the effectiveness of using 1¼ gallons of water. As an example, an extinguisher with a 2A label is rated as effective as using 2½ gallons of water on Class A fires.

>> Related article: Safety Dance

Class B and C extinguishers also have a number but it represents the square footage that the extinguisher is designed to handle. For example, an extinguisher with a 10B:C label is an extinguisher designed to handle Class B or C fires up to 10 square feet in size. It’s common to combine labels on a single extinguisher such as 2A10BC. Obviously, the larger the number, the better equipped you’ll be. You don’t want to run out of fire retardant before the fire is extinguished.

A smoke alarm can save your life © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Smoke alarms

An effective warning system can save your RV—or save your life.

With large RVs, it may take a while for smoke to travel from one end to the other. Therefore, it’s important to have multiple smoke alarms within the unit—one in the front and one in the back. Don’t place one too close to the cooking area, however, or you may be setting it off every time you burn the toast.

Smoke rises, so smoke alarms need to be mounted on or near the ceiling. Smoke alarms utilize either ionization or photoelectric sensing technologies. Ionization alarms are more responsive to flaming fires, whereas photoelectric alarms are more sensitive to smoldering fires. Each type works best in different situations. Fortunately, manufacturers make smoke alarms that incorporate both sensors in one unit.

Space heaters are a potential source of RV fires © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other alarms

If an RV develops a leak in a propane line or an appliance, highly flammable gas can build up. Since propane is heavier than air, it settles near the ground where it can creep along waiting for a pilot light or spark to ignite it. That is why propane gas alarms are mounted on an interior wall close to the floor.

>> Related article: 9 RV Fire Hazards and How to Avoid Them

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a byproduct of combustion and can come from fire, a furnace with a cracked heat exchanger, an exhaust system, or the exhaust from an auxiliary generator—yours or a nearby neighbor. CO is slightly lighter than air but doesn’t rise to the ceiling the way smoke does so CO alarms usually should be mounted mid-wall. Some manufacturers now offer combination alarms, either propane and CO alarm or smoke and CO alarm. The combination propane and CO alarms generally are located beneath the refrigerator which is perfect for detecting propane but may not be as effective for detecting carbon monoxide. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on the best location to place the alarm.

Since people are most vulnerable to the effects of CO poisoning while sleeping, it’s a good idea to have a detector near the bedroom.

Some CO alarms feature a digital LCD display that shows how much CO gas has accumulated. As little as 250 parts per million over an eight-hour period can be fatal, so a good alarm adds up the accumulative amounts, while less expensive models sound an alert only if a large amount of CO is present at one time.

CO and propane alarms become less effective over time, so these alarms should be replaced every 10 or so years, or as indicated in the user’s manual. The date of manufacture is stamped on the device.

How will you exit your RV in an emergency? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Proper preparation

Without a doubt, the most important factor when dealing with a fire is a calm mind. In an emergency, the mind always reverts to preparation, so rehearse what to do under any given situation. Discuss and practice how to deal with a particular fire and whether to fight it or exit the RV. Practice each escape route and method.

Outfit the RV with an adequate number of and the right type of fire extinguishers knowing that the one small dry chemical unit that came with the RV probably won’t be enough. The same holds true for warning devices. Smoke, propane, and carbon monoxide alarms need to be properly located in order to be effective.

>> Related article: Electric Space Heater Safety Tips for RVers

Oxygen, heat, and fuel are the three elements that must be present to support combustion. Eliminate one to extinguish a fire.

Worth Pondering…

Speed was high

Weather was hot

Tires were thin

X marks the spot

—Burma Shave sign