MOBILE HOME FIRES, PART 1: PROBLEMS AND PREFIRE PLANNING

BY BILL GUSTIN

A mobile home burning in the middle of a trailer park can be a significant challenge in terms of accessibility, exposure protection, and life safety concerns for occupants and firefighters. The hazards and problems of mobile home fires can be placed in two broad categories: (1) construction, design, and occupancy; and (2) fire operations in trailer parks.


(1) Mobile homes are fast, intense burners. Low ceilings, small floor areas, and combustible interior finishes all contribute to sudden and rapid flashover. (Photo by Bob Pallestrant; others by Lazaro Acosta.)

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CONSTRUCTION, DESIGN, AND OCCUPANCY

Mobile homes and lightweight prefabricated dwellings are among the fastest growing segments in the housing industry. Unfortunately, national fire statistics indicate that fire fatalities in mobile homes are disproportionately high when compared with those in conventionally constructed dwellings. The occupancies of mobile homes contribute to this higher-than-average death rate. Mobile homes provide affordable housing for the elderly on a fixed income and poor families with large numbers of small children. Statistically, the very young and the very old are more likely to die in a house fire than other age groups.

Mobile and prefabricated homes are fast, intense burners. Their lightweight structural members and thin ceiling and wall coverings provide plenty of high surface area to mass ratio fuel for rapid fire spread. Cheap, thin plywood paneling, common in many mobile homes, will quickly delaminate and distill flammable gases that contribute to extremely rapid flashover conditions.


(2) A second roof, built over the trailer’s original roof, forms a concealed space for hidden fire and a reservoir for flammable fire gases.

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(3) Expect bottled LPG. If you don’t see cylinders outside the trailer, consider that they may be stored inside the trailer. Note the extension cord for “borrowing” electricity from another trailer.

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The thin aluminum skin of a mobile home, although noncombustible, provides negligible fire resistance and melts readily. Molten aluminum is a significant hazard of trailer fires; the heat is intense enough to burn through a charged hoseline or the best of protective clothing.

Firefighting is further complicated when a second roof is built over the original roof. This is quite common on double-wides, where a pitched roof is installed over an existing flat roof for appearance and to reduce the sound of rain striking the flat metal roof. Adding a second roof forms a concealed space for hidden fire that is not readily accessible by pulling ceiling inside the trailer. Additionally, this roof space can become a dangerous reservoir for flammable fire gases. Consider that any pitched or decorative roof on a mobile home may be an unventilated concealed space. Stay off the roof of a mobile home! Many roofs will not support your weight even when there is no fire. Instead, open the gabled end for access, or use a piercing nozzle to penetrate and extinguish fire in this void.

Expect liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders, commonly used for cooking and heating mobile homes, to present a significant boiling-liquid, expanding-vapor explosion (BLEVE) hazard and rapidly spread fire from trailer to trailer. In my district, it is common practice for trailer park residents to store and use LPG cylinders as large as 100 pounds inside the mobile home. The presence of LPG cylinders is a significant size-up factor that must be noted in a 360° walk-around. If you are operating in a trailer park where LPG is used and you don’t see an LPG cylinder, suspect that it may be inside the burning trailer. This may necessitate a defensive attack from flanking, distant positions.

Electric service for mobile homes commonly consists of a large cord or cable that enters from under the trailer and is fed by a meter on a nearby pole. Position personnel and apparatus in anticipation of falling power lines, and beware of energized trailers; they conduct electricity through their aluminum skin. The electric service of some trailer parks is easy pickings for thieves of electric power. In my district, for example, it is not unusual to find “jumped” or bypassed electric meters or the services of two or more trailers joined with extension cords.


(4) “Jumping” an electric meter. Wires bypass the meter to steal electricity, a common practice in rundown mobile home parks.

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FIREFIGHTING CHALLENGES IN TRAILER PARKS

Exposure protection, water supply, and apparatus access are common problems in mobile home communities. There is generally a lack of separation between mobile homes, a condition that is made even worse when occupants build on makeshift additions in violation of building codes.

In South Florida and other areas of the “Sunbelt,” large numbers of immigrants have made their homes in old, dilapidated trailers once inhabited by retirees. The immigrants often piece together whatever building materials they can obtain and build additions to accommodate their large families. The result is trailer parks that resemble shantytowns consisting of closely spaced mobile homes and poorly constructed additions.


(5, 6) Additions, built without building permits, further decrease the separation between trailers.

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You may be asking, “Where is the code enforcement?” Many trailer parks were built years ago before there was code enforcement and have since been “grandfathered.” Depending on the jurisdiction, mobile homes and trailer parks were not subject to the same building and zoning regulations governing conventionally constructed buildings. There are also political and social issues to consider. No agency or public official wants to be seen as the one responsible for tearing down someone’s home and displacing poor families.

Maneuvering a modern eight-foot-wide apparatus through the narrow streets of many trailer parks can be difficult, time-consuming, and often impossible. Parked cars and cars on jack stands further reduce the clearances. Narrow streets also make it difficult to pull and advance transverse or “crosslay” preconnects from the side of the apparatus.

It is rare to find a hydrant in a trailer park. Many of these parks require long hoselays from water sources outside the park. A lack of hydrants may necessitate cutting fences to reach a water source, hand-laying supply hoselines, and tank shuttles.


(7) Illegal additions leave practically no separation between trailers. Apparatus often cannot pass in the narrow streets that are congested with parked cars.

BEFORE THE FIRE

How do you deal with the fire problems of a trailer park? The keys are to be proactive in the planning stages of a trailer park scheduled for construction and conduct extensive prefire planning of existing trailer parks. Following are some “lessons” I and other experienced fire officers have learned.

  • When a trailer park or a development of manufactured homes is planned for your community, get involved in the review process for the building plans. If the fire department doesn’t voice its concerns over lot spacing, street width, and water supply, it is doubtful that anyone else will.
  • Get out, preplan, and map the trailer parks in your district. They can be little cities unto themselves. It can be very difficult to find the correct lot without a detailed map, well-marked streets, and a lot number. Encourage (require) the management to display a large map of the complex at the trailer park entrance. The preplan should include the following:

—hydrant locations inside and outside the trailer park.

—whether residents use LPG or natural gas and, if so, determine if tenants have individual cylinders or if a large “nurse tank” is supplying the LPG through gas lines to each trailer.

  • Visit trailer parks at night and on weekends to get a true picture of how occupants’ vehicles may block access for apparatus.
  • Locate points along the periphery of the trailer park from which to hand-stretch hose from apparatus too large to reach the fire. Also, identify locations outside the trailer park that will facilitate a smooth and efficient tanker shuttle operation.

BILL GUSTIN, a 32-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain with Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue and lead instructor in his department’s officer training program. He began his fire service career in the Chicago area and teaches fire training programs in Florida and other states. He is a marine firefighting instructor and has taught fire tactics to ship crews and firefighters in Caribbean countries. He also teaches forcible entry tactics to fire departments and SWAT teams of local and federal law enforcement agencies. Gustin is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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