According to the data, Fire and Rescue NSW responds to an average of 70 caravan fires yearly, and that’s only for one state. And while it might be something we tend to ignore, the stats don't lie. A caravan fire can be catastrophic, with a high risk of death or injury if fire traps you inside a burning van.
So, let’s delve into the practicalities around fire safety because some of the recommendations around caravans and fire can be confusing. In addition, the requirement for maintenance is even more of a grey area.
The first line of defence is always to be wary around gas installations, ensuring stoves and heaters are operating correctly. Never leave appliances unattended while cooking and keep curtains and towels from hanging over your cooker.
All vans must have a smoke alarm fitted, and many owners also opt for CO and LPG monitors as an added precaution. In NSW, you must have a working smoke alarm. It needs to be a photoelectric monitor, which you should replace after 10 years. The battery lasts one year, and you should regularly check the operation with the test button function. Families should never leave matches or lighters in reach of children.
Even with these safety devices in place, we are sometimes a bit careless when it comes to their benefits. For example, regular toast burners like myself have found that some smoke alarms tend to be quite sensitive. As a result, there might be a temptation to remove the battery if cooking in the van causes the alarm to sound. For this reason, caravan alarms must have a 10-minute hush button, so it’s best to use it if the alarm sounds when the toast turns to ash.
At the same time, it's essential that the gas vent isn't covered. Some travellers cover the vent when negotiating dusty ground or deep water, but leaving it covered is risky. The vent is designed to allow LPG gas, which is heavier than air, to flow out of the van in the event of a leak.
An added protection might be a gas leak monitor for the van's LPG system. They range from $40 to $500 or so, but the caravan-specific one from Camec at $99 seems like a good investment, particularly with the recent problems with Swift stoves.
Extinguish the risks
Caravans must have a suitable fire extinguisher under Australian Design Rules. Still, there needs to be more information on what size is ideal for a van.
While most manufacturers fit 1.5kg dry powder ABE class cylinders in a dedicated holder, several fire safety businesses suggest this size cylinder should be considered a minimum. Several experts recommend a 2.5kg extinguisher. It might be something to consider if you have the space to mount it in an easily accessed location, usually near the entry door of the van. In the last 10 years, there have been significant improvements in the effectiveness of the chemicals used in even the smallest firefighting equipment.
The most practical model for a van is an ABE dry chemical powder extinguisher, which is suitable for a wide range of fires. This style has a red body and will always have a white colour band wrapped around the top of its cylinder.
These fire extinguishers are highly effective on the following fire classes:
- Class A Fires - paper, cardboard, wood, fabrics, people etc.
- Class B Fires - flammable liquid fires, petrol, diesel, oil etc
- Class E Fires - electrical fires, computers, photocopiers, switchboards etc
ABE dry powder extinguishers should not be used on fires involving combustible gases, such as LPG or natural gas and are not for use on cooking fat. We shouldn’t use water on cooking fat fires either, so having a fire blanket close to the stove is a worthwhile safety measure. A blanket should extinguish a small fat fire on the stove quickly, and it won’t have the clean-up problems of a chemical extinguisher. The blanket is designed to smother a small fire and they are relatively simple to use. But it’s worthwhile practising taking the blanket out of its cover and opening it wide before stretching it over a pretend fire.
Obey the rules
While Australian Design Rules mean that new vans must be equipped with a smoke alarm and an extinguisher, it's up to the owner to see that they are correctly maintained. I've not heard of an inspector looking at these devices at annual registration inspections, so it's easy for us to let things slide. However, if it’s wise to have this equipment in place, it’s also wise to ensure it works properly. If the risk of injury isn’t a motivator, a financial loss might be. Insiders in the safety industry told us that insurance companies had knocked back claims for damage when it was proven the fire extinguisher was out of service. And it’s not simply a matter of looking at the pressure gauge on the top of the cylinder.
However, I bet if we did a quick poll of caravanners, most of their cylinders would be past their use date. Earlier this year, I checked the various extinguishers in the house, shed, boat van and car. Two were out of the specified date, even though they all showed the correct pressure on the gauge.
Without specific standards around the private use of extinguishers, we must turn to the rules in a commercial environment.
In Australia, dry powder fire extinguishers must be discharged and recharged every three to five years, according to the situation. They also need to be serviced every six months. Your home extinguisher can last for five years, but a vehicle or a caravan is considered an aggressive environment, and the replacement period is three years. You could have the extinguisher refurbished with new powder, nitrogen and seals. This can be cost-effective for large extinguishers, but for the 1.5kg versions, replacing them is cheaper and more practical.
You can determine the extinguisher’s age by checking the build date stamped into the metal. Some manufacturers may affix a yellow date tag when building the van, which can be the start of the three-year service life.
Inspection should happen every six months. A safety company will charge around seven dollars, or you can self-check. Start by checking the pressure gauge and general condition of the cylinder. Vibration in a van or 4WD will cause the powder in the extinguisher to solidify, causing it to malfunction. Hit it with a rubber hammer till the powder dislodges, and the hammer makes a ringing sound rather than a dull thump.
Because fire spreads so quickly, occupants must exit the van as soon as possible. The priority is getting past the flames and opening the door to escape, then looking at controlling the fire., without going back inside. Knowing how to unlock the door quickly is essential. You may be able to get out through a window if they open wide enough.
It might not be top of mind, but fire safety is important and formulating an escape plan should be part of our caravanning to-do list.