12V fires; a camper trailer burnt to the ground

It’s nearly 1AM and I’m fast asleep, until I get a nudge from Sarah. I sit up with a bit of a fright, and Sarah urgently says ‘Aaron – there’s a fire!’. My heart skips a beat, as I grab my phone, spring out of bed and fly out the door. I’m standing next to our camper, and I can see a substantial fire burning about 20 metres away from us. I stand there, completely shocked and still half asleep, and my eyes re-focus.

I initially think it’s a bush fire, and then I realise that its actually the soft floor camper that is set up not far from us. Its engulfed, and easily 3 metres tall and about 4 metres wide, and I immediately wonder if we’re at risk of having the fire come down the hill towards us. Fortunately, we’re still hooked up, so I could literally drive off with the kids still sleeping if we needed to move.

I move up towards the fire fairly quickly, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near it, and hope that anyone in it is gone, but given there’s no sign of any human life, I’m a bit bewildered. I pull my phone out, and see there’s just enough reception for a call, so ring 000. I ask for fire, and they ask where I am. Darlington Park. Where’s that?

Umm, I have no idea We’ve been to nearly 200 different camp sites in the last year, and some mornings I wake and can’t remember where we are. My brain is still half asleep, and can’t remember that the closest major centre is probably Beaudesert, but fortunately they find the location, and ask a range of other questions.

I can see some other neighbours out on the other side, and wander over whilst still on the phone. They tell me they hadn’t seen anyone at the camper for 2 days, and I pass this along. I ask Sarah to head back to camp and get me a pair of shorts, as I’m still wandering around in my underwear at this point!

Not long after I get a call from a paramedic, who asks a series of questions, and then another call (whilst I’m still on the phone) from a call centre, chasing more information. I pass on what I can, and just stand there, with my mind still trying to process what had happened.

There’s nothing we can do. You can’t get anywhere near the fire, we have no running water nearby that we can use, and even if we jerry rigged a long hose it wouldn’t shoot far enough to do anything. A massive bang reminds us why you wouldn’t want to go close to it even if you could, as a gas bottle explodes, and then another one lets go a few minutes later.

We check the kids are still asleep, lock the camper door and just stand there, watching the camper trailer slowly burn away. Fortunately despite being under a big tree, nothing else catches on fire, and we just stand there.

Camper trailer on fire burning away
All we could do was stand there and watch it burn

About 40 minutes pass, and we see the flashing lights coming down the road. They pull up quickly, and within a couple of minutes the fire is completely out, and just a steaming pile of plastic, metal and really quite a sad state.

Camper trailer fire being put out
The fire brigade eventually arrived and put it out

The ambulance arrives not long after, and then the police, too. A few more heads pop out of camp sites nearby, but for the most part everyone is completely oblivious. I pass on our details, explain what we saw and head back to bed with Sarah, knowing it will take a while to unwind and fall asleep.

The next morning, we get up bleary eyed and show the kids the photos, and video that I took when the fire brigade arrived. We wander up to the trailer, and are quickly reminded of the devastation that occurred just a few hours ago. There’s virtually nothing salvageable, except for some tent pegs, the camp oven, and ironically, a pile of firewood not far from the where the fire was.

There's not much left after a fire
A scene of total destruction
Soft floor camper destroyed
Completely destroyed, with pretty much nothing salvageable

I’m curious as to what started the fire, and have a bit of a look around. We’d chatted about it the night before, and could only put it down to something electrical going wrong. There’s no fridge, and realistically very little that could have gone wrong.

Some party lights had been hanging around the gazebo, there was a battery on the floor in the camper and an inverter, all of which are completely and utterly destroyed. There looks to be a small radio of sorts too, with a whole heap of cable running all over the show.

Party lights all charred
There were party lights hanging around the camper
Battery completely destroyed
The battery on the floor next to the camper
Charred inverter
A small inverter in the middle of it all too

Maybe a rodent got in and caused a short. Maybe the inverter was left running, and something happened to it. Maybe the lights or cable elsewhere had a short, and it created enough heat to get things going? I really have no idea, but the fact that it suddenly burst into flames in the middle of the night with no one around is awfully strange.

It’s a scary thought, and whilst it could have been a lot worse, it’s a stark reminder that these things can, and do happen.

The owner was not contactable, but had been living in the camper for a number of weeks, and had departed just a few days prior.

What can you do?

Having a working smoke alarm is hugely important, and if you don’t have anywhere to mount one permanently, get a portable unit. They’re so cheap, and if you were asleep in the camper, or even nearby it would buy you some time to act and potentially save lives.

Inside our camper trailer at night
You should always have a smoke alarm

Use decent gear

There is some truly awful quality electrical gear out there today, and because there is limited regulations, its not uncommon to see people running average gear. I’ve seen some decent quality brand caravans using cheap knock off isolators and main switches, and I’ve also seen them melt, or go up in flames.

Don’t take shortcuts with wiring

Again, because there are very few regulations regarding 12V wiring, there’s some truly shoddy workmanship out there. Yes, anyone can do 12V wiring, but not everyone can do a good job of it. With big inverters in use today that pull ridiculous amounts of power, making sure your connections are done well, that cables are adequately protected, fused and sized accordingly is imperative, or things can go bad very quickly.

Dodgy 12V wiring
Don’t take shortcuts with 12V wiring, like this

Turn things off when they’re not needed

I wonder if the radio had been charging, or the inverter left on. Of course, I’ll never know, but its good practice to turn things off that aren’t in use. Don’t leave batteries charging while you sleep. Don’t leave inverters on if they’re not being used. Don’t leave lights on that aren’t needed.

The less you have running, the less chance there is for something to go wrong.

3000W inverter
We turn anything off that we don’t need running, as much as possible

Carry a fire extinguisher

Before we left on our big lap of Australia, I purchased two Firestrykers. One lives in the camper, and one lives in the Dmax canopy. Admittedly they were useless in this scenario as by the time we got there you couldn’t get within 10 metres of the camper due to the heat, but if you were early onto a small fire it could easily be put out.

Firestryker in our Dmax Canopy
We carry a Firestryker in both the car and camper

Make sure you have insurance

At the end of the day, things that can go wrong, do go wrong. Its not a nice feeling, but if the worst is to happen to your pride and joy, are you insured at a value that would replace things? If not, are you OK with that?

This happens all the time

You don’t have to look too far to realise that these sorts of fires happen, all the time. It might be a 4WD, or a Caravan, or a bus. In fact, the couple that also came out on the other side of us were at Cape Keraudren a few years earlier when a big bus caught on fire, and the whole thing burnt to the ground, leaving a family of 7 with absolutely nothing.

Yes, there are accidents, and lots of unpredictable things happen, but at the end of the day something causes these to happen, and if this was made clear it would be entirely avoidable.

Camper destroyed
A sad state of affairs, with our setup not far down the hill

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