Wildfire. It’s a scary, deadly enemy. In 2020, nearly 59,000 wildfires burned across the United States, chewing up 10.1 million acres. Could RVers be responsible for wildfires? Our minds may immediately leap to an unwatched campfire lighting off the forest. But 2018’s deadly Northern California wildfire, the Carr Fire, was set off, not by an untended campfire, but rather by an RVer, unaware their trailer had suffered a blow out. The wheel rim, in contact with pavement, set off showers of sparks, catching roadside brush on fire. How can you prevent RV-caused wildfires?
Don’t dismiss the idea that your RV could be responsible for a conflagration. Last year, the top cause of wildfires in California’s San Diego County were motor vehicles – 97 fires to be precise. Paying a little attention to your rig – and your driving habits – could make a big difference. So what’s there to watch for?
Your rig could create a conflagration
First, good rig maintenance can go a long way to preventing RV-caused wildfires. Let’s take a “top down” approach to that. Try parking your motorhome or tow rig over a piece of clean cardboard. Come back in a day or two and examine the cardboard. Are there any drips on the board? Oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid – all of these, when they get hot, burn. Got a leak? Find and fix the cause.
What about something as seemingly noncombustible as coolant? The National Fire Protection Association reports that both ethylene glycol and propylene glycol-based automotive coolants are flammable. “Antifreeze” has a flashpoint around 232 degrees Fahrenheit. When we say flashpoint, we mean the lowest temperature at which a substance can generate vapor that can be ignited. At that temperature, antifreeze would need a spark to set it off, so just a leaking bit of antifreeze under the hood isn’t likely to flash over to fire.
But as Ron Hoyt told us a few years ago, weird things can happen. Hoyt, prior to his death a couple of years ago, had served as the chief of the second largest fire department in Washington state. He pointed to the Northern California area as an example of such weirdness. Where Interstate 5 climbs in elevation, heading toward Oregon, a seemingly large number of RV fires happen in summertime. Hoyt told us that what often happens is that a coolant containing line or radiator will spring a leak. The antifreeze then starts to spray out over hot engine components. At 950 to 1245 degrees Fahrenheit, automotive coolant can auto-ignite. Climbing the steep grades on a hot summer day can easily provide those kinds of temperatures. With roadside brush, this mixture can easily lead to an RV-caused wildfire.
Hot cats burn grass
Moving farther down and back in your rig lives your catalytic converter, an essential air pollution control device. To work properly, the “cat” has to get hot. How hot? The average “light-off” temperature – where the converter begins to do its job of reducing emissions – is anywhere between 400 and 600 degrees Fahrenheit. But normal operating temperatures blast up to a searing 1,200 to 1,600 degrees. On a roadway, those kinds of temperatures are acceptable, but pull off onto a dry grassy shoulder and you’re heading for real trouble. If you do need to pull off the roadway, make sure you’re not going to drive onto grass or brush. And when boondocking, stick to the roadway or other clear areas.
Tires and brakes
What else may need attention? Your brakes. Not just the brakes on your motorhome or tow vehicle, but those on your trailer. It falls into the “out of sight, out of mind” category. We probably don’t think much about RV brakes, unless we’ve just spotted the sign that reads “steep downgrade ahead.” But worn brake components can bring metal-to-metal contact. That contact can yield sparks, and sparks, of course, can lead to a potential RV-caused wildfire.
Tires? It should go without saying, keep the wind not just in your sails, but in your tires, too. Low pressure or overloaded rigs can lead to tire failure. The Carr Fire was the 7th most destructive fire in California history, with damages rolling up to nearly $1.7 billion. All from a flat travel trailer tire. If you don’t have a tire pressure monitoring system, at least visibly inspect your tires at every fuel stop. Checking your tire pressure when you set out on the road each day is a good idea. And remember, just because the tread looks good, tires “age out.” A typically accepted figure among tire professionals is that RV tires should be replaced every five years. Most RVers will never run the tread off in that time frame.
Keep your safety chains safe
And then there are safety chains. If you’re towing a trailer that uses them, don’t let them drag. Back in 2018, a 3,000-acre wildfire in the Texas Panhandle got its start with a dragging chain. And the trouble with safety-chain dragging is that once the chain drags, it doesn’t just stop there. You may drive miles and miles with a chain sparking the pavement, setting off an RV-caused wildfire not just in one spot, but in multiple spots along your route. How long should your safety chains be? Short enough that the chain is well away from the pavement, and long enough that they won’t bind in a turn. If your chains are too long, what to do?
Please DON’T twist the chains to shorten them. Yes, it will keep the chains from dragging the pavement and creating an RV-caused wildfire. But if you fall into a situation where you need the chains to do their job – say, your trailer gets away from the hitch ball – you could be in serious trouble. The more you twist your safety chains, the lower their breaking strength becomes. See a fascinating discussion here.
If your chains are too long, first try running the hooks through the chain connectors on the vehicle, then back far enough to take the slop out, and connect the hook to the chain. If that doesn’t work, use chain shackles to effectively shorten the chain length. Be sure the shackle is equal to or greater than the load capability of the chain itself.
And final advice
Finally, carry a fire extinguisher in your rig. If a fire starts and you can safely use it to fight the fire, do so. Keep up with rig maintenance. Watch your tires pressure and rig loading. Don’t drive over combustible brush or grass. And keep those safety chains set properly. You may just prevent an RV-caused wildfire.