RV Fire Safety: What We Learned By Setting an RV on Fire (MUST WATCH)

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It sounds a little crazy, but we really did buy an RV for $1 with the intention of setting it on fire.  A few years ago, we visited an RV salvage yard where hundreds of RVs were damaged by fire.  Then last year 6 people we knew lost their homes to fire – two of those were homes on wheels – RVs!  So we decided we need to make an RV Fire safety video to help educate more people, to keep you and others safe.

But… in this distracted world we live in, how do we make sure enough people will see it and get the information? 

Maybe if we actually caught an RV on fire it would get the attention it deserves.  Of course, this isn’t something you can just go and do in your backyard safely.  So, we dove into this multi-month project alongside Fire professionals from the area we were RVing in, and the state level officials too.

This was a big project, and we learned a lot, so this post tells the story, and shares a TON of great information with you. 

We included some quick links to jump to sections of the post below.

And you can watch the video here – we think it’s the best one we’ve ever done. Let us know what you think in the comments!

Marc stands by a motorhome that was the victim of an RV engine fire

The Crazy RV Fire Safety Idea

So, as mentioned briefly above, we had this crazy idea that the best way to help others avoid loss and injury to fire with their RVs is by actually catching an RV on Fire on purpose.  We just knew that the first hand experience and visuals would be the best way to help educate others.  But you must admit, it sounds a little crazy and dangerous. This isn’t exactly something you can safely just do by yourself in your backyard. There are a lot of moving parts and logistics to safely find, transport, burn, and clean up after a big project like this. Could we even pull it off?

Fire crew inspects Harvey the RV for hazards before the burn 

Engaging the RV Fire Fighting Professionals

We were in western Colorado for a few months, so we started asking around in that area. Because before we can even begin considering setting an RV on fire on purpose, we need to make sure we could have the right people on hand to put the fire out.

Before long, we were able to have a conversation with a local fire department chief who really liked the idea.  Being a fellow RVer, he loved the idea of bringing extra attention to the additional fire hazards of RVs.  Even better, he also believed that he could help us gain the support of the state level officials.  

So he connected us with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. We met via Zoom with Chuck Altvater, an RVer himself, who was also excited about RV fire safety. By combining resources, we could reach a larger audience and help more people. Chuck was also able to help work with other fire departments across the state so that when we were able to find a suitable RV and location, the odds were good that the local fire department in that area would come on board too. It is a great training exercise for the fire departments. 

Harvey the RV is a 1973 Winnebago Indian motorhome that has seen better days

Grandpa and Grandma had fun with the RV, until it was left to rot in a field for 20 years

Finding a Suitable RV To Burn

In our travels, we see unused RVs all the time, so we were confident we could find one.  The more tricky part would be finding an RV that people watching the fire could relate to. It needed to be nice enough that people could imagine it being a normally  functioning and regularly used RV. 

But at the same time we didn’t want to destroy an RV that could be restored and continue to provide great memories of RV travel for new owners.  Plus we had to find one relatively close to the burn site (once that is established), so that we could safely transport it to the scene of the RV fire.  

The local fire department reached out to their network, and Julie also reached out to community facebook networks to find the goldilocks (just right) RV for our RV fire project. Before we knew it, we had multiple RVs to choose from.

Marc buys Harvey the RV for the princely sum of one dollar!

Which RV Did We Decide On?

The best fit for our RV fire was this 1973 Winnebago Indian 22 motorhome.  The owners had some wonderful travels and memories with it for years after they bought it.  But after a mechanical issue sidelined the RV, it eventually found itself sitting parked in a back field behind their barn for twenty years. 

During those 20 years, the roof was damaged by kids jumping on it, which lead to extensive water damage. The metal and chassis were all rusted, and many other parts degraded from lack of use, to a point of no return.

The previous owners loved the idea of their memory machine RV making one final journey and to help others stay safe in their RV travels. So they accepted our offer to buy it from them for $1.  Yep… ONE dollar for this once iconic RV that once was on many people’s wish list! Money had to change hands so we could obtain the title and legally own it, before we set fire to it!

We really loved the look of this old RV. So much personality.  We even chose to name our new purchase.  Harvey the RV.  It is a shame it was no longer restorable, but it was great that it will be able to go to a good cause instead of just continuing to rot in a field.

We hope Harvey’s sacrifice will do a lot for RV fire safety and save thousands of other RVs and the lives of their owners.

The entrance of scenic Kebler Corner campground in Somerset, Colorado

Our campsite at Kebler Corner

Finding The RV Fire Location

Finding an appropriate place to have such a big fire is not an easy task.  Our first hope was to do the fire in or near a salvage yard so that once we were done, the RV chassis would not need to be moved again.  But, despite a lot of effort and a good cause, we could not find anyone that could accommodate us. 

Reaching out to the broader community, we received a message from a very unexpected source.  The owners and operators of a beautiful campground in the mountains nearby are big advocates for fire safety in general, and RV fire safety in particular. They thought they might have just the right location.  So we looked up their campground on our RVLife app, and drove up to visit.

When we pulled up, we saw the great welcome center and tree covered RV sites surrounded by forrest land, covered in trees along a river.  But, around the back part of the campground was a huge open space.  Apparently, the open space used to be a large horse arena.  This large space would give us plenty of space to bring in extra fire trucks and keep enough distance from the beautiful natural surroundings to avoid starting a forest fire.

Aerial view of Kebler Corner Campground

This field was once a horse arena, when the property was owned by a billionaire

More About Our RV Burning Location

With their passion for educating on fire safety, owners Paul and Emily St. Ruth of Kebler Corner offered us to use the space as long as once we were done, we left no trace of the RV fire. Now, we knew it was going to make a BIG mess, but were also confident that with the right equipment and help, we could make it look like nothing happened there.

Plus, the location even had cabins in addition to RV sites, so there would be a place to stay for the others coming into the area to help with the project.  You can read more in our review of this campground here.

So, we all agreed that it would be the perfect spot, and set a date for when we would do the RV fire.  We needed to act fast before the wildfire season started, which would put demands on the fire fighting resources, and also potentially encounter a fire ban which occurs most summers in Colorado mountain areas. Then started making arrangements for all the others to fly or drive into the area to help out.  Many hands were needed.

Harvey the RV’s final road trip – being towed to the burn site

Getting the RV to the Fire Site

Though we were able to buy the RV for one dollar, we couldn’t just drive off in our new RV.  We had to hire a tow truck to drag it out of the field and up to the RV burn location.  And… remember, it had been sitting in that field for 20 years, so it had really old tires, and who knows what other challenges in moving it. 

Amazingly, the tires still had a little air in the tires, which was a good sign.  But tires normally need to be replaced after 5-10 years, so hopefully they would hold together for the 30-40 minute tow as long as we drove slowly.  

I grabbed my Viair air compressor out of our Jeep while waiting for the tow truck driver to arrive, and aired up all the tires from the 10-15 psi, up to about 50psi to better support the weight for what would be their final journey.  You can read more about our air compressor in this review post here.

The tow truck driver hooked everything up, and disconnected the drive train so that it would not overheat and cause an RV fire before we were ready.  Thank goodness, the trip went off without an issue and the next thing you know, Harvey the RV was at Kebler Corner in the former horse arena, waiting for his big day.

Sadly, the motorhome was completely trashed inside and beyond restoration

Marc does some ‘patch up work’ to make the RV look more habitable

Marc drills holes in the shock absorbers to reduce the risk of a fire explosion

Prepping the RV for the Fire Safety

But getting Harvey the RV to the burn location was not all that needed to be done to prepare for the RV fire.  Next we needed to repair some of the damage, clean it up, and make it more lived in. And we also needed to make some modifications to help ensure the safety of the RV fire fighters.  

On the safety side of things, we needed to remove the propane tanks, gasoline, and batteries.  We also needed to drill holes in the suspension shock absorbers to avoid them building up too much pressure and bursting.  When you see how big the RV fire is, you can imagine how much bigger the fire would be with a full tank of gasoline and propane that would exist in most RVs that people travel with.

Then, on the repair and decorate side of things. The roof had largely caved in from the water damage, so we had to use plywood to strengthen and reshape the roof to more like the original roof would be.  Then we had to clear out wasp nests and debris. The stove and cook top had been removed years ago, so we needed to build in a new counter top, and put a portable cook stove top for our cooking pan to simulate a grease fire.  Next we added a few decorative touches, some linens and some clothing in the closet.  

We gave Harvey the RV a mini makeover to make it look homey, before burning it

Why Decorate Before an RV Fire?

You see, when traveling in an RV, many of the items we carry are also sources of combustion.  Paper towels, snack chips, polyester clothing and drapes.  Also nail polish, cleaners and other flammable materials that we forget can be dangerous. A few more decorative touches and Harvey actually started to look quite homey.  

Then we planned how to position cameras inside the RV to capture the fire footage, and just hope that they will survive the blaze.  Chuck built special fire resistant boxes for the cameras out of particle board and gypsum board.  You might not know that gypsum board, or drywall sheet rock as it is sometimes called, is a very commonly used material for building traditional homes. 

One of the special features of gypsum board is that it is made up of 30% water which is a huge benefit to resisting fire.  Of course, RVs are not made with the same materials, and therefore are much less fire resistant.  Once the temperature gets high enough, the materials that RVs are made up of become very flammable.

Everyday flammable items include corn chips, nail polish remover, candles etc

Trouble... RV Fire Cancelled?

Everything to this point was coming together really well.  But then trouble stuck.  A forest fire started in the area, there was some wind in the weather forecast, so a red flag (no burning) warning was issued. Months of planning and so many people who traveled great distances to be here and it looked as though the RV fire would be cancelled.  

Even worse was that it seemed that fire season might have started early, and that if we were not able to do the RV fire this week, we might need to wait until the snow started to fall in early winter.  We were all understandably disappointed. But at least we could still go ahead and film some fire safety tips, fire extinguisher demonstrations, carbon monoxide testing, and other safety learning while we had all the fire fighting professionals in the area.  Then just hope that the conditions would improve the next day.  If not the next day, it was likely it would not happen for at least six months.

We learned a lot, and will share even more with other blog posts and videos soon.  Too much for a single article. Spoiler alert… as you probably saw in other pictures, we of course were able to do the RV fire the next day.  The wind forecast completely dropped the following day, so everyone was on board to go ahead.

The motorhome is well and truly on fire, around 10 minutes in

The RV Fire Safety Burn

Fortunately, the weather cooperated and the RV fire safety professionals were all comfortable with doing the RV fire demonstration.  So, it was back ON!

We did our final preparations of the RV, then the fire fighters brought two fire engines to make sure we were extra safe.  Then they simulated a cooking fire by lighting a fire on the stove top.

Within 30 seconds, the smoke detectors went off and smoke was filling the RV. In less than one minute the RV was unfit for human life. Yes, an RV fire can become deadly in less than one minute.

The fire continued to build and quickly engulfed the entire inside of the RV.  Flames began coming out of the roof, visible through the windows from outside. Within 5 minutes the flames were over ten feet above the RV. Keep in mind that the average response time for a fire department is 8 minutes. And a more rural environment like most RV parks, and camping locations, would be much longer.

By 15 the RV was basically one giant fireball with a huge plume of black smoke filling the sky.  There was a small explosion when the fuel nozzle for the gas tank shot out from the pressure of the heat. We had forgotten to remove the fuel cap! At that point, we asked the fire fighters to extinguish, and they went to work putting out the blaze.

The Aftermath of the RV fire

The crew of fire fighters had the fire extinguished in about 3-4 minutes. Little remained of the RV.  The frame and floor were intact, but most everything above that was charred remains.

Shockingly, our fire proof bag mostly survived the blaze, with our ‘important documents’ – including our book Living the RV Life – which were still mostly intact!

All three of our cameras inside the RV melted, despite the fire resistant boxes we built to protect them.  Fortunately, the SD cards from two of the melted cameras still saved the images we used in the main video.  

If you haven’t watched the video yet, click here to watch it.

 

RV Fire Safety Tips

What Are The Most Common Causes of RV Fires?

There are of course many common causes of RV fires.  Let’s run through some of the most common causes to help keep you safe!

Cooking in RVs

RV cooking fires are the most common source of RV fires when not in motion.  Most RVs use propane stove tops, and all too often there are flammable objects too close to the cooking area.  Also, when cooking with grease or oils, if the temperature gets too hot, it can burst into flames. Normally around 650 degrees F  The small space and low ceilings in most RVs makes it more dangerous than cooking in a traditional home.

RV Fire Safety While In Motion

Trailer chains dragging and making sparks.  You might have seen trailers that have safety chains that are too long, causing them to drag on the ground. This is especially noticeable at night.  It only takes one stray spark to cause a fire. 

Improperly inflated tires can overheat and cause a tire failure and/or a fire.  Make sure your tires are are at the proper temperature and pressure by installing and monitoring them with a Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS)  You can check out the review of our favorite system by clicking this link.

Overheating brakes, sometimes caused by improperly adjusted trailer brake settings, and sometimes from just driving too fast, or with too much weight on steep grades.  The brakes can catch on fire if overheated enough.  But even if only a little over heated, they can still be a major hazard if you pull over onto the road shoulder or off highway area where thee wheels and brakes can come into contact with highly flammable material like dry grasses and weeds.

Similar to brakes, the wheel bearings on trailers can overheat if they are not properly greased.  Once they overheat they can become a hazard similar to the hot brakes mentioned above.

Exhaust systems on your motorhome or towing vehicle can become very hot, especially the catalytic converter.  If the exhaust comes in contact with flammable material like weeds or dry grasses or fabrics, they can easily cause a fire.

Propane appliances in motion

Cooking or running propane appliances while in motion. Cooking while in motion is extremely dangerous, especially when cooking with propane.  But other propane appliances like propane refrigerators can also be dangerous because they are only meant to be operated while level. 

But when driving, your RV is often not level, especially when going up and down hills. If operated when not level, the flame can weaken the metals, and cause the fridge to fail and cause a fire.  Some newer propane fridges can be operated while in motion, but still need to be turned off if not level for more than a couple hours. Of course, dealing with a fire is dangerous enough when parked, but even more so when in motion.

Another reason to turn off propane appliances is that they can be especially dangerous in fuel stations.  Some propane appliances like water heaters have an open flame. Gasoline vapor and an open flame are not a good combination.

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An RV refrigerator fire totaled this Class A motorhome

RV Refrigerator Fires

Though many newer RVs are starting to use electric, or residential type refrigerators, historically, most RVs have fridges that operate on propane at least part of the time.  These propane RV refrigerators or heat absorption fridges are great for conserving electricity when not hooked up to power, but they have a few disadvantages as well.

Heat absorption RV refrigerators need to be level when in operation, If unlevel, the burner inside can heat unevenly and weaken the parts which will eventually cause them to fail and cause a fire.

Because propane RV refrigerators need to be level while operating, Some newer models can be operated while in motion, because of the changing angles and vibration.  But, if stationary for more than a couple hours, it must be level to operate.

Another potential hazard with heat absorption RV refrigerators is, that because of how much heat they produce, they need to be well ventilated.  The open vents required to operate them can attract insects, birds, and other pests to create nests in those areas.  These nests near high temperatures can easily become a fire hazard, so you need to regularly check these areas to make sure they are free from debris and RV fire hazards.

RV Electrical Fires

RVs can be complex homes on wheels, especially some of the more modern RVs that are filled with electronics.  When wiring a traditional home, the wiring stays very stationary.  But in an RV that is frequently in motion and bouncing. With the construction style and the movement, wires can sometimes experience abrasion that leads to damaging the electrical wires.  And, the electrical systems in RVs are not always meant for some of today’s high draw electrical appliances. So, RV electrical fires can be an increased risk.

These RV electrical fire hazards are of course in addition to electrical fire hazards you might be familiar with in your traditional home, like overloaded electrical outlets, extension cords connected to other extension cords, cords under rugs that don’t allow heat to dissipate, flammable materials near electric heating appliances.

Remember, if you have a fire that might be electrically charged, never use water to put it out.  Only use a fire extinguisher that is approved for type C fires.

The aftermath – the RV fire was extinguished by the fire crew after 15 mins of burning

RV Fire Hazards Also Found In Regular Homes

  • Overloaded electrical outlets
  • Loose fabrics near heat sources, especially synthetic fabrics.
  • Rugs over cords don’t allow the heat to escape
  • Daisy chained cords (plugging multiple extension cords together)
  • Candles can cause a fire if tipped over, or if flammable material comes near the flame
  • Smoking 
  • Cooking

The motorhome is fully engulfed in flames, this is at the 15 minute burning mark

Other Reasons RV Fires Can Be More Dangerous Than Traditional Home Fires

  • Fewer and more difficult fire escape routes
  • Unfamiliar environment for occasional travelers
  • Less prepared/practiced using appliances, cooking in the space
  • Wild land Urban interface (WUI). When in your RV, you are often camping in the WUI, so  you have the dangers of both environments. If another RVer or camper starts a fire in the area, you could be impacted by their fire.
  • More flammable materials. Most home interior walls in North America are built with gypsum board (drywall) which is made up of 30% water.  When there is a fire, the gypsum board can release some of this water reducing flammability.  RVs are mostly made of much more flammable material.
  • Campfires nearby RVs, and in some cases, camping in areas that could be prone to wildfires.

How To Prevent RV Fires and Stay Safe

  • Don’t overload electrical outlets
  • Cook outside when possible
  • Don’t cover cords with rugs or carpet
  • Provide ventilation for any heat generating electronics or appliances
  • LED candles instead of regular candles
  • Maintain and properly use heating sources
  • Regular inspection for hazards in RV and surroundings
  • Avoid campfires if any wind is present
  • Be aware and mindful of fire restrictions in the area
  • Don’t leave portable heaters running when sleeping
  • Make sure your campfires are dead out and cool to the touch
  • With clothing, or loose fabrics like curtains, choose natural fabrics like cotton and hemp instead of synthetic fibers like polyester which is much more flammable. If using synthetic fabrics, coat or dip them with fire retardant coatings
  • Regularly check wire connections for good connection
  • If you smoke, do not throw your butts on the ground, and preferably only smoke outside
  • Frequently check in the undercarriage and outside panels of RV appliances to ensure that no pests have created nests and that there are no flammable materials present
  • Practice emergency evacuation plans
  • Never enter a vehicle or RV on fire
  • Keep a spare set of keys handy for your towing vehicle for escape

RV Fire Safety Tools

  • RV Smoke detector. Change the batteries every year, unless ten year battery, and replace the detector every ten years.
  • Carbon monoxide detector. Consider a low level detector with digital display to alert you of low levels which can still cause harm over long term.  Change the batteries every year and replace the detector every ten years.
  • RV Fire extinguishers in multiple places. We have several of these fire foam cans. We like to keep one in the bedroom, kitchen, entry area, outside storage, by the BBQ grill, in the towing vehicle. Mount them in easy to see and reach locations for fast response.
  • Types of fire extinguishers for RVs. For best safety, use those rated for both type A (wood, plastics, cloth etc, AND type B (liquid fuel like grease, oil, stove and motor fuel). It is good if they are also certified for type C fires (electrical) – Never use water on type B, or type C fires!
  • Water, shovel and fire extinguishers for outdoor fires too. Keep it right by the fire.
  • Surge protector (30A or 50A) for your RV electrical system.
  • Consider switching appliances to an electric fridge, and induction cooktop instead of propane fridge and propane stove/cooktop.

Here is a link to our Amazon store page with some of our favorite RV safety, and RV fire safety products 

Here’s a link to the online store where you can find our favorite fire foam cans that we have everywhere!

Thank you to everyone who helped us pull of this crazy RV fire experiment!

Thank You!

Thank you to so many others who helped make this possible.

  • Paul and Emily St. Ruth at Kebler Corner Cabins and Campground for offering their beautiful location for the RV Fire
  • Chuck Altvater and Kyle from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control for sharing their wisdom, guidance and support of resources
  • Paonia Volunteer Fire Dept for keeping it all safe and putting the fire out
  • Jason and Megan Rutel for helping to film the content
  • Tim and Emily Rohrer from Own Less Do More, for volunteering to help with set up and clean up!
  • RV Life for supporting this project and helping us share this important message with others
  • To Mobile Must Have for sending us some fire extinguishers to use in our testing.  More on those in a future post.
  • The previous owners of Harvey the RV – Duane and Rose – for selling us their RV for a dollar for this cause
  • To All of You for watching, and for sharing this blog post and video with others to help keep others safe!

Thank you again. We could not have done this without all of you!

GOT COMMENTS OR QUESTIONS?

We would love to hear from you. Drop us a note in the comments section below.

16 thoughts on “RV Fire Safety: What We Learned By Setting an RV on Fire (MUST WATCH)”

    • Glad you enjoyed it Cheryl 0 though we know that sounds like a weird thing to say about an RV fire video! Hopefully it will help educate a lot more people and help them stay safe in the future. Hope you and David are doing great!

      Reply
  1. “Because propane RV refrigerators need to be level while operating, it is discouraged to operate them while in motion. When in motion, your RV is frequently unlevel, especially when traveling on hilly roads.”

    I don’t believe this is true as yes the RV is frequently not level but being in motion the shaking compensates for the absorption frig to work safely.

    Also, you state repeatedly about the frigs needing to be “level”, but to be accurate they need to be level within spec which is in the range of 20 degrees of true level, to be operating safely.

    Reply
    • Hi Mike, It is true that some of the newer propane fridges are more tolerant of off level, especially while in motion, but there are still many older fridges out there that are less forgiving. And I just think that in general it is a good practice so that people don’t forget to turn them off when entering fuel stations (which owners manuals on newer units still strongly advise against), and also to avoid stopping somewhere, parked un level, for a couple hours. Not sure about your info on the 20 degrees from true level. The owners manuals I have read still state that it must be level while in operation for more than a few hours. No reference to range of off level that is acceptable. But thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for this article and photos. This is a very important subject. I’ve been RVing since 1979 and I’ve often left the propane on in the fridge except at fuel stations. This next trip this month, no propane will be on. Also I need another fire extinguisher too. I learned some things from this presentation and it was also a reminder of things I may have gotten lax about.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing Joyce… yes it’s easy for all of us to get lax, but it can all happen so quickly! We have several of these fire fight foam cans around our RV (inside and out) in our tow vehicle, and in our home too, one by the BBQ. https://www.mobilemusthave.com/Fire-Safety_c_55.html?Affid=4

      We always have one with arm’s reach at any place where a fire could occur. We even had one above our bed in the motorhome rear bedroom….in case a fire started at night. These work really well as they are easy to use and not corrosive like the chemicals in the fire extinguishers so wont’ damage electronics, if used. Luckily we haven’t had to use them in a real fire situation – only burn demonstrations – but they give us a lot of peace of mind to have around! Hope this helps and safe travels! Good idea to turn that propane off when in transit. You mentioned the article and photos – hope you got a chance to watch the video too!

      Reply
  3. You two are simply crazy…. and I love it. You did something similar as couple of years ago and I bought your “Living the RV Life” book as a way of saying thanks for all the great stuff you two discuss. So with this “Burning Down The (RV) House” video I just had to buy your new book, RV Hacks. Keep up the good works.
    Thanks Again.
    Kim & Karen Wardle

    Reply
    • Those are hilarious reasons for buying our books! LOL Being crazy!? What was the other crazy thing we did a couple of years ago? Renovate an old RV in under a month? That was crazy LOL. We do like to do things “different” for sure. Enjoy the books! And hope you learned some useful tips in the RV fire video / post!

      Reply

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