Last week, I wrote an essay about the growing problem of the “rolling homeless”—those unfortunates forced by various factors to live full time in often decrepit RVs. I noted that I was seeing an increase in daily news reports of RV fires with associated deaths and serious injuries. A few readers questioned whether RV fires were that common. Since my initial observations were mostly anecdotal, I decided to dig a bit deeper into the prevalence of RV fires.
It depends on who you ask
My first stop was the Good Sam VIP Insurance site. Good Sam didn’t have any hard numbers, but says RV refrigerator fires and propane leaks are the second-most common insurance claim.
Next, I checked with the U.S. Fire Administration who said from 2016 to 2018, an average of 5,840 RV fires were reported to U.S. fire departments each year (see chart below). Those fires resulted in 15 annual deaths, more than 100 serious injuries and $58.5 million in losses. I should note that their latest figures were well before the pandemic and the resulting boom in both RV ownership and homeless RVers. Still, that’s a daunting 4.6 deaths per 1,000 RV fires.
To muddy things further, I went to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), who released a study in 2020 called the Fire Damage and Loss Assessment of Recreational Vehicles. The NFPA has previously stated that the number of total RV fires (reported and unreported to fire departments) could be as high as 20,000 per year. But I was looking for RV fires that would have resulted in injuries or deaths.
Study requested to help develop new industry standards
The study includes data collected between 2008 and 2017. The NFPA Technical Committees requested the study to help develop new industry standards for 2021. To give you an idea of the compromised data these groups had previously had to work with, the previous data included not just RVs, but also mobile medical vehicles, bookmobiles, and food trucks. It was certainly time for an update.
The chart below from the NFPA 2020 study (Figure 3) shows the total incidents of reported RV fires between 2008 and 2017. The chart illustrates the problems in counting RV fires, since some fire departments report them as RV fires, and other departments report them as “mobile structure fires.” That makes it difficult to keep an accurate count on just how many RVs are bursting into flames.
What the chart does show is a growing trend in the number of RV fires as far back as 2014. Again, more timely information that factored in the huge growth in recreational RVing, as well as the number of rolling homeless, would likely show that the upward trend continues.
This next chart (Figure 4) shows that when it comes to fire danger, you’re better off with a newer rig. That’s not a surprise, since many of the fires being reported this year occur in older RVs that are being used continuously, and sometimes being heated by using questionable space heaters and overuse of propane stoves.
A deeper study of the RV fires that were reported shows vehicle engines and kitchen areas as the most common ignition sites for fires, with the “ignited item” most reported as electrical wiring or flammable or combustible liquids or gases.
Remember that U.S. fire departments report RV fires as both RV vehicle fires and structure fires, so it’s difficult to get an accurate count of both the fires and the associated deaths and injuries.
Keeping that in mind, the U.S. Fire Administration says there were an average of 34 RV fire deaths per year between 2008 and 2017. The highest year was 2017, with 48 deaths.
Over that same 10-year period, the chart below (Figure 8) shows that having a heat source too close to combustible materials was by far the leading cause of fires.
The next chart (Figure 15) is interesting in that it shows RVs built between 1989 and 1998 were the most likely to result in deadly RV fires. This makes sense and supports my original observation that there is an increasing prevalence of RV fires among those living in substandard RVs full-time.
Many of those older RVs were not manufactured using current fire safety codes and have likely outlived their safe usability. Faulty wiring and loose propane connections would certainly make these rigs more susceptible to fire.
The U.S. Fire Administration report says RV fire deaths were most common in January and February, most likely caused by the increased use of heaters. Since 2017, there has undoubtedly been a marked increase in homeless RVers using older or substandard rigs. It stands to reason that the upward trend in RV fire deaths would increase substantially with the huge increase in homeless citizens sheltering in poorly maintained RVs over the winter months.
What’s the right answer?
No doubt we are seeing more individuals either choosing to live in older RVs or being forced to due to their financial situations. The trouble comes when those RVs are well past the days when they were safe to use.
The costs and procedures for licensing these older RVs vary wildly from state to state—and that only matters if the owners bother to license them. Even then, most states are only concerned with the roadworthiness of vehicles and aren’t checking to see if inside electrical systems, propane appliances, or vents are in working order.
The bottom line is that we can likely expect to see a growing number of RV fires and deaths as this winter plays out.
If you want to see more, you can take a look at the full NFPA 2020 Report here.