RV Fires?

Apparently, this is a thing.

I got stuck on I-95 South this morning trying to get into work. It turned out that an RV fire closed down all southbound lanes for a bit. The cascading effect essentially made it impossible to get to the office.

I went to Google News to get details about the incident, finding the notion of a recreational vehicle spontaneously catching fire on a major interstate highway—when it’s cold and raining, to boot—unusual. Apparently, not so much. There are 1220 reports just for “RV fire I-95”—none of them about today’s incident. One wonders why they’re allowed to be on the road at all if they’re that flammable.

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Franklin says:

    Well, I suppose people don’t do much cooking in other types of vehicles. Unless you’re one of those people who has installed a BBQ grill in your engine compartment.

  2. Kathy says:

    The world is big, and filled with obscure people, things, and events. Or “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    I admit this one strikes me as weird.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    My wife and I have been looking at towed trailers rather than RVs, but have come away with the impression that most mobile residences of any type are shoddily built. Despite the fact that they can literally cost more than a house, considering you get no land with them. I think this is reflected in their incredibly steep depreciation. We met someone this summer who showed us around their “new used” RV. It was gigantic and had three extensions that slid out of the interior when parked. If I understand correctly the thing was close to $300k new but they had brought it after four years for $70k.

    The small tow behind we re looking at seems to be one of the few that is well built. (Airstream is another.) But it is significantly more expensive for this type of vehicle and has an 18 month waiting list. It’s resale value, on the other hand, is quite high.

  4. John Peabody says:

    Perspective, perspective…152,300 vehicles catch fire every year. 17 every hour. So don’t blame the rare Tesla or RV for having a special reason to catch fire. Stuff happens.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @John Peabody: I’m mostly joking here but it’s truly bizarre to me that vehicles catch fire when not in collisions–let alone under cold and wet conditions. Considering how rare RVs are on I-95, that a quick Google search turned up so many incidents struck me as odd.

  6. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: Back in the day when cars had carburetors mounted above a piping hot manifold, car fires without a collision were by far more common. Cars mostly only catch fire after collisions in the movies. Think about it. How many accidents have you passed? And how many resulted in fires? For me the ration is at least hundreds to one

  7. Teve says:

    Vehicle fires have gone way down in the last 40 years, probly because of what MarkedMan described.



  8. Liberal Capitalist says:

    What’s that, grandpa?

  9. Pete S says:

    Makes sense. Most of the RV’s have fridges which run on propane when they are not hooked up to electricity. I have known people who leave them running when they are travelling, to keep their food and beer cold, and as MarkedMan suggests it is not as though all RV’s are well made. Now you have a propane tank or two, a gas tank, and two sources of combustion in a vehicle which is bouncing around and going up and down hills. A vehicle which may or may not be well made and may or may not be well maintained.

  10. Timothy Watson says:

    I just saw the video on WTOP’s website and it looks like a box truck may have rear-ended the RV. The video shows the rear of the RV fully engulfed.

    Not sure if fires from RVs occur at a higher rate than other vehicles, if it might be something to do with the design, or the probable lack of experience of drivers driving them. (For clarity, someone may spend every day driving in their car but only drive their RV a couple times a year.) Throw in the fact that’s holiday traffic on I-95 and a bunch of people with minimal highway experience surrounded by people with extensive I-95 commuting experience.

    (I commute from Fredericksburg to south of Richmond everyday and I was getting annoyed as hell at people not knowing how to drive during rush hour this morning.)

  11. tess says:

    Oh be serious. I read a lot thru the yrs, cars catch fire on the road, mostly cuz they were made wrong, RV occasionally. There is always a reasonable explanation. They are sold more than any other vehicle, safe and i know many who live in them traveling S in Winter and going back to the Natl Parks in the Summer. Stop trying to give them a bad name.

  12. Franklin says:

    @tess: I’m glad you read a lot. Hopefully that will translate to better writing someday.

  13. Mister Bluster says:

    What’s that grandpa?

    Why that’s what we used to snort after the hobby shop wouldn’t sell us any more tubes of airplane glue without buying a model airplane to go with it.
    Those 100 octane leaded fumes wafting up your nose would melt your eyeballs!

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: If you check into car fires I suspect you will find far more of them spontaneously combusting just by virtue of #s. I have come across 3 vehicles on fire with their drivers forlornly standing off to the side of them. Something about gasoline, degrading fuel system components, and redhot engine parts makes spontaneous combustion kind of inevitable.

  15. grumpy realist says:

    Let’s not forget that the Fiat 500 had a reputation for spontaneous engine fires at one point. (One reason I didn’t purchase one although gosh do they look darn cute.)

  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mister Bluster: When I was a child for a very short time, it was possible to buy bi-plane models that featured “genuine canvas fuselages and wings” glued onto the frame with liquid toluene adhesive “dope.” Fun times! I bought one but didn’t get back to the store in time to buy another before the city made the store stop selling them.

    ETA: The Fiat 500 Spider was cute, the 500 coupe, meh,,, not so much. As a retro offering now it has some appeal, but not $25k worth. My Spark is MUCH cuter at 10K less.

  17. Mister Bluster says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:..When I was a child for a very short time,..
    You weren’t alone:

    How to launch a nationwide drug menace*
    The first known mentions of glue-sniffing in print date from 1959 and concern the arrest for sniffing glue of children in Tucson, Arizona, Pueblo, Colorado, and perhaps other Western cities. Laws against sniffing glue or sniffing anything else, of course, did not yet exist. Accounts of these remarkable arrests reached Denver, where two reporters investigated. Their account of glue-sniffing-the first full description in the mass media that has yet turned up-appeared in Empire, the Sunday magazine supplement of the Denver Post, on August 2, 1959. The article reported: “Police in Pueblo, Colo. and several other cities in the West and Midwest report that juveniles seeking a quick bang and a mild jag spread liquid glue on the palms of their hands, then cup their hands over their mouth and nose and inhale deeply.”

    On December 8, 1961…the Denver papers reported that State Representative Ben Klein, a former probation officer, would “propose to the January [1962] session of the Colorado Legislature three new laws to deter youngsters from sniffing airplane glue. . . .”
    …In support of his three new laws, Representative Klein quoted Denver’s juvenile Court judge Philip Gilliam as saying that he considered gluesniffing to be now “the Number 1 juvenile problem in the metropolitan area.” Glue-sniffing had achieved this preeminence within two and a half years after the two writers in Empire had found no evidence of gluesniffing in Denver. Representative Klein’s three laws would make it an offense (1) to sell glue to minors without parental consent, (2) to drive a car while under the influence of glue, or (3) to sniff glue. This last proposed offense was remarkable-for, as noted in Part 1, it is not an offense to use even such drugs as heroin, in Denver or elsewhere in the United States.

    *I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

  18. Mister Bluster says:

    My 1992 F-150 Long Bed Super Cab had 160,000 miles on it in January 1999 when it caught fire on Southbound Florida’s Turnpike Mainline somewhere between West Palm and Lantana. I remember when it happened because President Bill Clinton of Arkansas had just been successfully impeached by the House of Representatives (that’s one of the two chambers of the United States Congress in case you were wondering GeeNose) and his trial in the Senate (that’s the other chamber) was underway.
    The smell of burning plastic coming into the truck cabin was unmistakeable. Since I did not detect any smoke and the engine kept running and I was close to the Motel 6 where I was lodged I decided to keep driving. Got to the motel, parked, opened the hood (which you should not do with an engine compartment fire) sure enough flames were shooting out of the alternator and a wiring harness. I was fortunate to get the fire out before it spread.
    Don’t remember the details but insurance covered most of the repair and provided a vehicle for me to drive while my truck was in the shop.
    Drove the Red Flame as I called after that another seven years and finally parked it with 320,000 miles on the odometer.
    You can see the thick plume of black smoke and flames of a car fire from a good distance on the open road.
    One time I came over a rise on a stretch of eastbound Interstate 64 where it runs concurrently with northbound Interstate 81 in Virginia. I was headed to a job in Charlottesville. Just a few car lengths ahead of me there appeared what looked to be an old 1950s model panel truck. Right away I noticed a ball of bright orange flame under the chassis. As I tried to catch up to it a car in the passing lane between me and the fireball was able to get beside the truck and warn them of the danger. I saw a head and arms out the passenger side car window frantically waving and pointing for them to get off the road. As I pulled over to use my Motorola Bag Phone to call 911 the burning truck quickly got on the shoulder and even before it stopped the rear and side doors flew open and what looked like 4 or 5 college students jumped out and ran to safety!
    By the time I had contacted 911 and reported the incident more cars had stopped to help the stranded so I stayed where I was with hazards on.
    Wasn’t too long and the fire engine arrived. There wasn’t much left for me to do without getting in the way so I continued on to my So Very Virginia destination.