Frequent trailer fires raise questions

Published 8:56 pm Thursday, July 24, 2008

Mobile home fires are not uncommon in Chilton County. At least three occurred between Sunday and Monday, and at least five have been reported this week.

But are mobile homes, or trailers, more susceptible to fires than stick-built homes? Not so, says State Fire Marshal Ed Paulk.

“People aren’t putting the maintenance into those (mobile) homes that they are putting into stick-built houses,” he said.

Consequently, there seems to be an illusion that trailers are fires waiting to happen because of some fatal flaw in their construction.

In reality, the characteristics of a trailer fire are different from those of a house fire simply because trailers are built differently. For example, the absence of an attic allows the byproducts of combustion to flow more freely through the structure. As a result, trailers typically burn faster, Paulk explained.

“It has nothing to do with the quality of construction. It’s the method of construction,” he said.

Because many trailers are rented out, tenants may not treat them with the same care as they would a permanent home. This all goes back to lack of maintenance.

“Rental property is often treated more harshly than homes that are owned. That doesn’t indicate that they aren’t built to standard,” Paulk noted.

Economic cycles in the construction industry and the mobile home industry may also be a factor. When mobile home sales are down, a larger number of older mobile homes may be available.

Paulk maintains, however, that from a fire safety perspective, trailers are “not any less safe” than other forms of housing.

While the rules of fire safety are virtually the same for trailers and houses, Paulk identified a few common mistakes people make:

1) Relying too heavily on extension cords. When people cover up extension cords with rugs, the cords cannot dissipate heat into the atmosphere, and heat builds up. Heavy furniture placed on top of cords can damage them, creating further constraints. Overloading electrical outlets with too many appliances is another serious fire hazard.

“Extension cords are not a replacement for permanent wiring,” Paulk warns.

2) The misuse of flammable liquid, such as substituting gasoline for kerosene in a kerosene heater, is another common problem.

“They are not meant for that,” he said.

Other problems include:

3) Leaving candles unattended, or leaving items such as lighters or matches out where kids can reach them.

4) Using generators inside where they are not properly ventilated. This can result in a fatal buildup of carbon monoxide.

5) The misuse of portable heaters by placing them too close to combustible objects. The use of portable heaters might be more common in trailers for the simple fact that it is more difficult to heat a trailer than it is to heat a house.

“It all revolves around common sense,” Paulk said.