Useful tips for restoring order to an RV or stationary home.
By Mac McCoy, Fire and Life Safety, C7648
Last fall, while driving through Mississippi, my wife and I saw smoke a few miles away. After we had driven a few more minutes, traffic came to a halt. The smoke was starting to turn gray “” a sure sign that the fire was being extinguished. However, being a firefighter for most of my adult life, as I sat in traffic I couldn’t help trying to think of ways I could help.
Having taught fire-and-life safety classes for RVers for years, I always instruct: if you can’t get the fire under control in the first minutes, get away from the vehicle quickly. Looking up ahead, my wife and I could tell that the fire was well under way, and only the local fire department should be fighting the fire at this point.
When traffic finally began to inch forward again, we passed by a burned-out motorhome, and I wondered whether I might have been able to offer assistance if only I had been there when the fire first ignited.
Realizing that I’ll never know what might have been, I drove along feeling a bit helpless, because I knew recovering from a fire includes a long restoration process of both physical property and personal emotions. When a fire strikes, lives are suddenly turned topsy-turvy. Oftentimes, the most difficult part is knowing where to begin.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the United States Fire Administration (USFA), and RV Alliance America (RVAA) have gathered the following information to assist you if you suffer from a fire. This information will give you direction so you can begin getting your life back to normal.
The First 24 Hours “” Securing Yourself and the Site
After the proper local authorities have been contacted, call your RV insurance claims center. Most RV-specialty insurance policies will assist you with the following:
1. Temporary housing
2. Food allowance
3. Transportation to your primary residence, or if you’re a full-timer, transportation to a relative’s home or campsite
4. Eyeglass replacement
6. Other essential items
7. Rental car
8. Towing assistance
- Do not enter the damaged RV. Fires can easily rekindle from hidden, smoldering remains. The fire department will let you know if it’s safe to enter or use the RV.
- Do not attempt to turn on any utilities, such as water, electricity, or propane, until the fire department has instructed you that they are safe. If any of the utilities are not safe, the fire department may disconnect them before they leave your site.
- Be watchful for structural damage caused by the fire. Roofs and floors may be damaged and subject to collapse.
- Food, beverages, and medicine exposed to heat, smoke, soot, and water should not be consumed.
Leaving Your RV
- If you are unable to move the RV, contact the local police department to let them know the RV will be unoccupied and possibly left alongside the road or in an RV park. In some cases, your RV insurance company may provide coverage for transporting the vehicle. It may be necessary to board up openings to discourage trespassers.
- Save the receipts for any items you buy related to your fire loss. Your insurance company will need to see how much money you spent. You will also need receipts to verify losses claimed on your income tax.
If it is safe to do so, try to locate the following items:
1. Identification (driver’s license and Social Security card)
2. Insurance information (auto, life, and medical)
3. Medication information
4. Eyeglasses, hearing aids, or other prosthetic devices
5. Valuables (credit cards, bank books, cash, and jewelry)
Notify the following entities of your relocation:
1. Insurance agent
2. Finance company (if your loss is financed)
3. Family and friends
4. Employer, if applicable
5. Children’s school (if traveling with children or grandchildren)
6. Mail service
7. Fire department and police department
Filing the Claim with Your Insurance Company:
- Give notice of the loss to the insurance company immediately, so an adjuster can be assigned right away. It is important to give your insurance adjuster the opportunity to come straight to the scene of the fire if at all possible.
- Ask the insurance company what to do about the immediate needs of the RV, such as covering doors, windows, and other exposed areas.
- Ask what actions are required of you. You may be asked to make an inventory of damaged personal property, showing in detail the quantity, description, and how much you paid for the items. (To help with this task ahead of time, visit www.rvaa.com/pworksheet.php3 to print a personal contents inventory worksheet from the RV Alliance America Web site.)
- Do not throw away any damaged goods until after an inventory is made. All damages are taken into consideration in settling your insurance claim. If you are considering obtaining an estimate for repair services, discuss your plans with your insurance agent first.
If You’re Not Insured
Your recovery from a fire loss may be based upon your own resources and help from your community. Private organizations that may be sources of aid or information include:
1. American Red Cross
2. Salvation Army
3. Religious organizations
4. Department of Social Services
5. Civic organizations
6. State or municipal emergency services office
7. Nonprofit crisis counseling centers
8. RV clubs
Valuing Your Property
It may be difficult to measure the value of your property after it’s been destroyed in a fire. Your personal items have sentimental value to you, but the value placed on your belongings by an insurer or the federal government likely will be different.
It is objective measures of value that you, your insurance company, and the IRS will use as a common ground for discussion. Some of the objective measures are described below.
This is an important element in establishing an item’s final value. Receipts will help verify the cost. It is important that you store copies of all receipts somewhere outside of your RV “” at the time of fire, receipts are like gold.
Fair market value (before the fire)
Also known as actual cash value, this is what you could have received for the item if you had sold it the day before the fire. The price would reflect its purchase price minus the depreciation it had sustained since purchase. (Depreciation is the amount of value an item loses over a period of time.)
What the item is worth after the fire.
There are companies that specialize in restoring fire-damaged RVs. Whether you or your insurance company employs this type of service, be clear ahead of time who will pay. Be sure to request a cost estimate for the work and, before a company is hired, check its references. Restoration companies provide a range of services that may include:
1. Securing the site against further damage
2. Estimating structural damage
3. Repairing structural damage
4. Estimating the cost of repair of personal property
5. Packing, transporting, and storing items
6. Securing cleaning or repair subcontractors
Salvaging Your Belongings
Professional fire and water damage restoration businesses may be the best source for cleaning and restoring your personal belongings. However, if you would like to attempt to restore your belongings yourself, the following guide can help you.
A word of caution before you begin. Test garments before using any treatment, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Several of the cleaning mixtures described in this section contain the substance trisodium phosphate. This substance can be purchased under the generic name TSP. Trisodium phosphate is a caustic substance commonly used as a cleaning agent. It should be handled with care and stored out of reach of children and pets. Wear rubber gloves when using TSP. Read the label for further instructions and safety precautions.
Smoke odor and soot can sometimes be washed from clothing. The following formula may work for clothing that can be bleached: mix four to six tablespoons of trisodium phosphate with one cup household cleaner or chlorine bleach and one gallon of warm water. Mix well, add clothes, and rinse with clear water. Dry thoroughly. For clothes that cannot be bleached, wash with regular detergent (several washings may be necessary), add a tablespoon of pure vanilla extract, and dry as usual. For wools or dry-clean-only clothing, find a dry cleaner with an ozone generator.
An effective way to remove mildew from clothing is to wash the fresh stain with soap and warm water, rinse, then dry in the sun. If the stain has not disappeared, apply lemon juice and salt or a diluted solution of household chlorine bleach, then wash and dry thoroughly.
Your pots, pans, flatware, etc., should be washed with soapy water, rinsed, and then polished with a fine-powdered cleaner. You can polish copper and brass with a product such as Brasso Brass Polish, which works on copper, stainless steel, pewter, and chrome. Salt sprinkled on a piece of lemon or salt sprinkled on a cloth saturated with vinegar may also clean metals.
Don’t use appliances that have been exposed to water or steam until you have a service representative check them. This is especially true of electrical appliances.
If the fire department turned off your propane or power during the fire, check with them to determine whether it is safe to restore these services “” do not try to do it yourself.
Wash canned goods and food in jars with detergent and water. If labels come off, be sure to mark the contents on the can or jar with grease pencil or marker pen. Do not use canned goods when the cans have bulged or rusted. Do not refreeze frozen food that has thawed.
To remove odor from your refrigerator or freezer, wash the inside with a solution of baking soda and water, or use one cup of vinegar or household ammonia to one gallon of water. Baking soda in an open container or a piece of charcoal also can be placed in the refrigerator or freezer to absorb odor.
Rugs and carpets
Dry rugs and carpets thoroughly. To clean throw rugs, beat, sweep, vacuum, and then shampoo. Rugs should be dried as quickly as possible. Lay them flat and expose them to circulation of warm, dry air. A fan turned toward the rugs will speed drying. Make sure the rugs are thoroughly dry “” the surface can sometimes seem dry, but moisture remaining at the base of the tufts can quickly cause the rug to rot. For information on cleaning and preserving your carpets, call a carpet dealer, an installer, or a qualified carpet cleaning professional.
Wipe leather goods with a damp cloth, then a dry cloth. Stuff newspapers into purses and shoes to retain their shapes. Leave suitcases open. Leather goods should be dried away from heat and sun. When leather goods are dry, clean them with saddle soap or other approved leather cleaner. Rinse leather and suede jackets in cold water and dry away from heat and sun to avoid shrinkage.
Wet books must be taken care of as soon as possible. The best method to save wet books is to freeze them in a vacuum freezer. This special freezer will remove the moisture without damaging the pages. If you cannot find a service that has such a freezer immediately, place your books in your own freezer until a vacuum freezer can be located. A local librarian can be a good resource for ideas to restore special literature.
Locks and hinges
Locks (especially iron locks) should be taken apart and wiped with oil. If locks cannot be removed, squirt machine oil through a bolt opening or keyhole, and work the knob to distribute the oil. Hinges should also be thoroughly cleaned and oiled.
Walls and furniture
To remove soot and smoke from walls and furniture, use a mild soap or detergent. Or mix four to six tablespoons of trisodium phosphate, one cup household cleaner or chlorine bleach, and one gallon of warm water. Wear rubber gloves when cleaning with this solution.
Wash a small area at a time, working from the floor up, and then rinse the wall with clear water immediately. Ceilings should be washed last. Washable wall covering can be cleansed like any ordinary wall, but care must be taken not to soak the wall. Work from bottom to top to prevent streaking.
Do not dry your furniture in the sun. The wood could warp and twist out of shape. Clear off mud and dirt. Remove drawers. Let them dry thoroughly to avoid sticking when you replace them. Scrub wood furniture and fixtures with a stiff brush and cleaning solution.
Wet wood can decay and mold, so dry thoroughly. Open your doors and windows for good ventilation. Turn on your furnace or air conditioner if necessary. If mold forms, wipe the wood with a cloth soaked in a mixture of borax dissolved in hot water.
To remove white spots or film, rub the wood surface with a cloth soaked in a solution of 1/2-cup household ammonia and 1/2-cup water. Then wipe the surface dry and polish with wax or rub the surface with a cloth soaked in a solution of 1/2-cup turpentine and 1/2-cup linseed oil. Be careful “” turpentine is combustible.
You also can rub the wood surface with a fine-grade steel-wool pad dipped in liquid polishing wax; clean the area with a soft cloth and then buff.
Handle burned paper money as little as possible. Attempt to encase each bill or portion of a bill in plastic wrap for preservation. If money is only half-burned or less, you can take the remainder to your regional Federal Reserve Bank for replacement. You also may mail the burned or torn money by registered mail, return receipt requested, to:
Department of the Treasury
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Office of Currency Standards
P.O. Box 37048
Washington, DC 20013
Mutilated or melted coins can be taken to your regional Federal Reserve Bank.
If your U.S. Savings Bonds have been destroyed or mutilated, you must obtain Department of Treasury Form PDF 1048 (I) from your bank or online at www.ustreas.gov and mail to:
Department of the Treasury
Bureau of Public Debt
Savings Bonds Operations
P.O. Box 1328
Parkersburg, WV 26106-1328
Check with an accountant, tax consultant, or the IRS about special benefits for people with limited financial means after a fire loss. Contact the fire department for a fire report and the police department for a copy of the accident report if you were involved in an accident.
It goes without saying that a fire can be a frightening, traumatic experience and one we’d all like to avoid. Do your best to minimize fire risk by reading up on fire safety or taking a class on the subject. If a fire does occur, however, follow the steps outlined here and remember that there are professionals “” insurance agents, restoration specialists, even counselors “” who can help you cope with the aftermath.
Mac McCoy is a 30-year fire-fighting veteran who has worked as a paramedic, deputy sheriff, and the Fire Service Training Coordinator for the State of Oregon. He now travels nationwide teaching RVers the skills needed for fire-safe travel. Mac has a bachelor’s degree in Fire Science and a master’s degree in Fire Administration.
To learn more about Fire & Life Safety, find out where you can attend an RVAA Fire & Life Safety seminar taught by Mac, or to contact Mac, visit www.firesafety.rvaa.com.
Replacement of Valuable Documents and Records
It is recommended that you don’t travel with most of these items, but keep them in a safe location away from your RV. However, if you do need to replace any of these documents, the following list may help you with the process.
Item Who To Contact
Driver’s License Auto/RV registration Department of Motor Vehicles
Bank books (checking, savings, etc.) Your bank, as soon as possible
Insurance policies Your insurance agent
Military discharge papers Department of Veterans Affairs
Passports A local post office or district court can help you find the nearest passport agency
Birth, death, and marriage certificates Bureau of Records in the appropriate state
Divorce papers Circuit court where decree was issued
Social Security or Medicare cards Local Social Security office
Credit cards The issuing companies, as soon as possible
Titles to deeds Records department of the locality in which the property is located
Stocks and bonds Issuing company or your broker
Wills Your lawyer
Medical records Your doctor
Warranties I ssuing company
Income tax records The IRS Center where filed, or your accountant
Citizenship papers U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
Prepaid burial contract Issuing company
Animal registration papers Humane Society
Mortgage/bank papers Lending institution