Tuesday, September 27, 2022

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How many RVs are burning? It depends on where you look

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.

Deaths

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.

##RVT1039b

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Cere
7 months ago

What about the RVs that burn up while traveling on the road? I have seen more of these than I ever expected. The story I hear is that perhaps the emergency brake on the tow vehicle was not released and caused the tow tires to catch fire, which moved up to the RV? I don’t know, but truly, as I travel up and down I-75 in Georgia, I really have seen quite a few burned up RVs along the road – causing huge traffic delays I might add.

Cal
7 months ago

7 years this month we bought a travel trailer in Atlanta, Georgia and we’re towing it home when the tow vehicle broke down. I was able to park the trailer and stay in it while the truck was being repaired, however there was no shore power available and the battery went dead at 2:am after running the furnace for a few hours. I couldn’t get the oven lit so I cracked open a window for ventilation and started a burner on the stove. After a few minutes I felt the over head cabinets and immediately shut off the burner. The overhead cabinet surface was so hot to the touch it was painful to touch and on the way to ignition.
Obviously when the trailer was designed there was no consideration for flammable surfaces that could be ignited from the range top burner.
Thinking back to previous RVs I’ve owned I realize that doesn’t seem to be a consideration in the design of RVs.
They can easily catch fire on their own.

David carlson
7 months ago

Mike, great follow up on last week. I have been in the fire service for now over 30 years doing everything from firefighter/paramedic, fire investigator, fire inspector and fire safety educator. I read this report when it first came out in May, and along with the committee’s discussion on how RVing is looking now after COVID. I really think Chuck should looking into being part of the RV subcommittee for NFPA as there is two Standards regarding RV’s and campgrounds (NFPA 1192 and1194), As these standards are referred to in the manufacturing of new RV’s and building of RV parks.
This year I’m planning on retiring from the fire service and going full time in my class A. As I transition from residential community to the RV community, I feel it’s important to continue to educate people on Fire safety, so I just started playing around with YouTube and have a channel on RV fire safety called RV Fire Marshal. I hope to add more material that will help reduce RV fires along with injuries and

Bruce Haskell
7 months ago

I hada brand new Georgie Boy 32′ Class A (1989), and the wiring beneath the dashboard broke into flame. I stopped the unit, and despite objections from my screamingfamily, put it out with the on-board fire extinguishers. It was still drivable, but all on the dash was out except light switches. It took 3-4 months for the dealer to repair all. I switched to a Class B!

DW/ND
7 months ago

With motor homes being included with trailers and fold-downs it is hard to figure the number or percentage of fires caused in the engine compartment vs refrigerators etc.. Also, the injury or death rate in older units might be attributable to the so called “escape window”. EVERY RV should have at least an “exit door” from the bedroom. With the volume of Rv’s vs losses it would appear to be not much of a problem – unless it is yours or your loved ones!

We read about many fires in this newsletter and I have often asked “What is the cause?” That is important prevention information – regardless of vehicle age. So, thanks Mike for a great report to this point. After your extensive research it would appear detail breakdown of info isn’t available. We just had a Class C burn in a driveway in Fargo, ND (2 days ago) parked next to a vacant home. The front section of the C was totaled; the house had metal siding which saved it. It was very cold also! They suspect propane or engine.

Firefly
7 months ago

Excellent work Mike. I was pleased to see you follow up with the facts that are available.

bull
7 months ago

More RV’s produced means more RV fires will occur going forward.

Couple that with the number of folks who have purchased RV’s in the last 5 years with loans that will go delinquent in the very near future and you will have a much larger increase in the amount of RV fires as RV owners “think” burning their RV is the perfect way to git out of the RV trap and git back some of the money they spent buying that RV nightmare!

3 Hot’s and a Cot for the RV owner/burner when the Fire Marshall determines the cause of the fire to be Arson/Insurance Fraud!

Last edited 7 months ago by bull
Ray
7 months ago

Old RVs, no longer a mobile camping unit have become engaged in the larger problem of homelessness in the US. There is scarcely an major intersection in Dallas that does not serve as a collection point for beggars on all corners, trashing the intersection and impeding traffic. Police won’t do anything as it is politically a hot potato. The homeless are there because it pays. If it stopped paying they’d eventually move on, perhaps to help clinics that could use the donators’ support. I wish those that donate would realize that they are the ones keeping the beggars on the street. Same goes for junk RVs. As long as they are available they will be an impediment to seeking help.

Uncle Swags
7 months ago

Further failure of government or at best inconsistent application of laws. Residences normally require a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) from the local government before people are allowed to reside in the structure. This is a protection for the individual as well as their neighbors and it is generally a good idea to establish and enforce safety measures. But that just doesn’t fit with the narrative being pushed by these localities who seem to have other things on their minds.

Spike
7 months ago

Good followup article, Mike.

Fortunately, the area of the country I’m from doesn’t have the number of homeless in beat up old RV’s that other areas may have. But, I thought of your last article when I pulled into a Home Depot in Onalaska, WI recently and at the end of the lot was a very old class C that was in such bad shape it had an old piece of plywood covering where the door would be! I couldn’t see a hinge. It almost looked like it was just screwed on permanently to cover the opening. If that was the case, it would be much harder to escape quickly via the cockpit doors!

That thing didn’t look road worthy or fit to live in, but better than a cardboard box in the winter, I suppose.

J I
7 months ago

There are millions of RVs in the US, with a half-million more added last year. Do the percentage math and the number of fires relative to the RV population is still infinitesimal. Yes, these things do burn fast but your chances, and thus your risk, is still extremely low as long as you don’t do dumb stuff.

Tommy Molnar
7 months ago
Reply to  J I

Agreed.

Chris
7 months ago
Reply to  J I

Or be poor and desperate.

Jesse Crouse
7 months ago
Reply to  Chris

You can be poor and desperate and still have common sense when trying to stay warm and fed.

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