It’s not something we want to think about, but we should. You’ve probably seen the aftermath beside the road—a large charred area of pavement, often on the shoulder of a mountain pass road. RVs can and do catch fire. Those who are prepared for that possibility are the ones that are far more likely to survive. In this story we’ll talk about what equipment you should have and how to use it, and, even more important, what you need to be mentally and physically prepared for an RV fire.
Being prepared to fight an RV fire involves knowing some basic facts about fire. It takes four things to make a fire:
• Fuel—be it wood paneling, gasoline, or what-have-you.
• Oxygen to sustain the fire.
• Heat to bring the fuel to a combustion point.
• And finally, a chemical reaction between the other three elements that spells fire.
Take any of these four elements away, and the fire goes out. Fire extinguishers are designed to take away one or more of these elements. But to be effective—and safe—you must use the right type of extinguisher for the “fuel.” Here are the ways that fuel types are classified for fire extinguishers:
• Class A: Wood, paper, cloth, trash, plastics.
• Class B: Flammable liquids and gasses. These could include oil, gasoline, paint, or propane.
• Class C: Energized electrical equipment and wiring. (Once the power is off, these are no longer Class C fires.)
• Class D: Combustible metals.
• Class K: Cooking oils and greases.
With the exception of Class D materials, most any RV could have any of the “fuels” listed above. So how do you choose an appropriate extinguisher? When shopping, look at the tags. Fire extinguishers have to be labeled according to the type of fire they handle, and how much muscle they have for the job. For instance, you may find an extinguisher labeled “1-A:10-B:C.” The letters indicate what types of fire the extinguisher can be safely used on, in this case, Class A, B and C fires. The numbers give you an indication of “horsepower,” if you will. The number preceding the “A” classification (for ordinary combustibles) when multiplied by 1.25 gives you the approximate equivalent for the fire-fighting power of that many gallons of water. The number preceding the “B” classification means approximately how many square feet of fire an average user should be able to put out.
Obviously the higher the numbers, the better the protection. Of course, there are tradeoffs. The bigger the gun, the heavier it is to carry, aim, and successfully use to put out a fire. For RVers, having extinguishers that can handle Class A, B and C fires is a plus. As for kitchen fires, an extinguisher rated for Class B (burning liquids and gasses) is generally accepted among fire fighting types, the “K” class was added just a few years ago, and primarily is a requirement for commercial kitchens and restaurants.
There are a variety of different agents used in fire extinguishers. The multi-class A-B-C extinguishers typically use a dry powder to put out the fire. Some of these substances are slightly toxic, and can mean a messy clean up, but you’ll need to weigh the alternative of not using an extinguisher. Some RVers have gone to a relatively new type of extinguisher under the brand name of Cold Fire. While clearly rated for Class A and B, one retailer says they also carry an extinguisher that adds a C rating. The product is said to be much, much colder than water, and takes the heat out of a fire. No heat, no fire. Cold Fire extinguishers are more costly than dry chemical ones, and need special consideration if left in a rig that goes below the freeze point, but are something to consider.
Finally, don’t be satisfied with having just the one fire extinguisher that came with your RV. A fire may not always start conveniently near the extinguisher, and running through the rig in search of that fire fighter is a recipe for disaster. Many RV safety professionals recommend having at least three fire extinguishers on your rig: one near the entrance, one in the bedroom, and one accessible from outside. This is particularly important for motorhomes, which have the added hazard of an engine compartment.
Fight or Flee
Just because you’ve got several fire extinguishers doesn’t mean you’ll be able to successfully handle any RV fire. RVs by their nature of construction and materials BURN FAST. In any fire situation, the first consideration is safety. Save your life first, worry about the rig second. Get everyone out of the rig.
Here’s where that advanced planning comes in. Imagine that you couldn’t get out of your rig through the entry door. Do you know where your escape hatches are? How to open them, fumbling in the dark and half asleep? How do you safely use the exit hatch? If you go out head first, will you fall and injure yourself? Can you and everyone on board use the escape route—and can you actually FIT through the escape hatch? DRILL your family on use of escape hatches, and make sure your guests know how to work the door latch—they aren’t all the same in every RV.
Got everyone out safe? Use your extinguisher ONLY if the following is true: The fire is small, and confined to the immediate area where it got started—say a wastebasket, a chair or a pan. Never try to fight a fire when it has caught the ceiling on fire. You should have your back to a safe escape route. Remember, more folks die in fires not from burns, but from breathing toxic fumes. An RV is a small, confined area, and it doesn’t take much to make your rig’s air toxic. Listen to your instincts—if you have ANY doubt about your ability to knock down the fire, head out the door.
Think you can fight it? OK, then remember PASS. P for PULL the pin on the extinguisher. A for AIM it low, toward the base of the flames. S for SQUEEZE the trigger and hold it. The last S is for SWEEP the nozzle from side to side. Once you get the flames out, watch it! A fire can trick you and start up again. If you “run out of gas” before the fire is out, then run out the door.
Fire extinguishers need maintenance. A former fire chief of a major metropolitan fire company, Ron Hoyt, is himself an avid RVer. If he comes to visit you in your RV, don’t be surprised if he takes a quick look at your fire extinguishers, then asks you gravely, “When was the last time you turned that upside down and shook it?” Dry chemical fire extinguishers are probably the most common included by RV manufacturers. However, with time and the shaking down that RVs take from pounding down the road, that dry chemical can settle down to the bottom of the extinguisher, rendering it virtually useless for firefighting. Ron advises RVers to shake their extinguishers at least once a month, carefully listening to hear the powder slide back and forth in the cylinder. It takes a good thump on the bottom to loosen packed powder.
It’s also essential to keep an eye on the unit’s pressure gauge. If the needle isn’t in the “GOOD” zone, then waste no time getting it checked by a qualified fire extinguisher service company, or replace it. NEVER pull the pin and fire an extinguisher unless fighting a fire. “Just a little shot,” calls for a recharge.
Having a practiced evacuation plan, several well-placed extinguishers, and the knowledge of how to use them will go a long way to helping you stay safe. Hopefully you’ll never have to use any of these things, but just knowing you have your plans and equipment in place can help you rest better at night.
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics. They also provide great resources in their book, Camp Hosting USA—Your Guide to State Park Volunteering. Visit icanrv.com for more information.