Our RV Caught on Fire! What Not to do During RV Renovations

We almost burnt down our RV.

And I’m tellin’ the truth too because diving into this deep honesty-pool — sure, there may have been times when Andy and I wanted to watch our 1965 Clark Cortez motorhome burn. For instance, removing the underseal made me feel our RV purchase was not worth it, and replacing our clutch master cylinder brought forth such an angry outburst from Andy that he wanted to abandon our vehicle. And these are just two situations when we wished for flames.I could name more. However, simply know I’ll never lie to you, my dear reader — Restoring an antique vehicle can bring out the best and worst in a person, and these moments were undoubtably our worst.

Yet, most times we are filled with faithful love and devotion for our rolling rectangle-of-dreams … and — sure enough — that is when our RV almost burnt down.

Andy and I had just finished fabricating and upgrading our Cortez’s air intake system, and a heavy rain allowed us to discover serious leak problems — which is why we decided to remove as much as possible inside due to both controlling water damage and avoiding water damage. This meant starting — and finishing — Phase One of our demolition.

For the most part, our Cortez was empty inside — though we aimed to keep several items (such as the stove, the fridge, the seats, and more), which we diligently returned inside each day during the gutting. Phase Two of our demolition was then before us, but before we started removing the plumbing, heating, and electrical systems — for whatever reason — Andy became resolute in wanting to start the RV.

“Why don’t we wait?” I questioned. Surely, the engine running did not guarantee our success in pulling old wires — and in fact this seemed to be the opposite from focusing on our job. But hey, what do I know.

“I just want to see if it will start, okay?” Andrew was determined so I stepped aside to watch him walk to the front of our RV, open the driver’s side door, and slide the key into the ignition.

From there, the memory of whether our RV started is overshadowed due to a strange sickly-sweet smell and then Andy’s sudden yells.

Then I saw smoke.

“L!” His voice was filled with panic as he leapt from the driver’s seat and body slammed me at the back of the RV. In a matter of seconds, smoke filled the inside of our Cortez and started billowing out.

“Run to the garage — right now — and ask Josh for a fire extinguisher! GO!” he shouted so off I raced — no time to think — running full speed and as fast as my heart could carry me the about 250 yards to the garage.

For reference for my non-Americans, an American football field is 120 yards.

Also for reference, I asked Cousin Josh how far he felt this Chicken House Two-to-garage distance would be, and 250 yards was his answer. However, let’s be honest: This distance has never been measured before, which is why I told Josh my long-winded hustle-of-a-run surely felt farther at the time and that I may exaggerate the distance so that those readers would properly understand what I endured to save lives. Josh then approved and said — and I quote — “Make it 400 so almost a quarter mile.” Bingo.

So, I was running full speed as fast as my heart could carry me the about 250 yards 400 yards to the garage.

“JOSH!” I screamed out of breath to my cousin who was working on a vehicle. “Fire extinguisher! The Cortez — It’s on fire!”

“A wha — I mean — We — Let me — Hell, I don’t know where one is!” and he began searching frantically while I watched (catching my breath) his eyes move along the walls for the red canister too. “This will have to work,” he says and grabs a massive jug of coolant before running to his truck.

“I’m getting a ride,” I told him, hoping in uninvited.

“Of course,” he said — no hesitation — and started his truck before zooming down to Andy and the Cortez. We bump and hop in our seats over the rocky drive when — “Hey?” I hear Josh holler over his shoulder.

“Yeah?” I ask.

“Why did you run? Why didn’t you drive Andy’s car?”

This was a valid question — It was right next to the Cortez and would have been faster, more efficient for sure.

“I mean . . . he told me to run” was all I could say. Therefore let it be noted: In a distressing situation, I respond literally to instructions.

Back to the story: With a slam on the breaks and Josh and I jumping from the car, Andy suddenly appeared from the side where he had just opened the storage compartment to allow the smoke to more easily escape. “It’s not on fire anymore,” he said standing up when he saw us. “I disconnected the battery.”

There were a few cuss words from me — or was it Josh or was it both of us, and then the three of us stood in silence staring at the Cortez.

Minutes passed until the last plumes of smoke eventually disappeared.

Still no one moved. Then the three of us had a good, hard look at one another.

“You know — ” my cousin started. His voice was calm and thoughtful. I could tell he was seriously mulling an idea over in his mind. “Would it have been the worst thing if your RV burnt to the ground? Think of the insurance money.”

I mean, he had a point . . .

“So what happened?” Josh and I asked as the three of us stepped inside to survey the damage. Here’s the answer: When Andy and I demo-ed the inside, wires were moved, and one wire in particular happened to be moved against the Cortez’s steel body. This wouldn’t have been a concern . . . unless our RV was started. Unfortunately, when Andy started the engine, that meant this wire was connected at the engine battery . . . but not at the leisure battery so it conducted electricity from the Cortez’s body instead and overheated then burned.

That one wire essentially burned its way from the engine all the way to the back passenger corner of our Cortez (where the leisure battery is kept) so that the result was an melted wire sheath so bad that our wires were exposed to the metal in some places . . .

Not only this, but anything touching this wire burned — including our adored sofa-bed seat . . .

Listen, mistakes happen. And we never claimed to be experts in this antique-vehicle overhaul.

Still, I admit a few tears were shed when I saw this seat — After all, the seats are my favorite part of the Cortez and knowing this is not something we can refurbish ourselves — or even get someone else to — hurts my heart. It still hurts my heart looking at this picture.

“We are not sharing any of this,” Andy told me as I took pictures to document because I promised to bring you along for our successes and our failures.

“But it’s our story — it’s our Cortez-story,” I told him as he protested to the point that my camera had to go away . . . which means up until now, we both essentially pretended that this error didn’t happen.

Yet, you deserved better.

“You cannot post this,” Andy told me then.

Maybe I can though because lessons were learned, such as always disconnect the battery.

And purchase a fire extinguisher.

And remember where you put that fire extinguisher.

Author: L

Hi there! I am the impulsive do-er, the jumper, the one tugging to move past comfort zones to embrace a life of sheer surprise. I am a writer -- a pursuer of stories -- because I believe in the destination over the journey. I am a chaser of sunrises and sunsets and cherisher of the moments between. I have an overwhelming curiosity, an insatiable desire travel, and an obsessive yearn to turn dreams into realities. For all of these reasons, the word that best summarizes who I am is "seeker" -- I am forever a seeker.

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