Jenny Doman and her family stood beside a highway exit ramp watching helplessly as bright orange flames engulfed their brand-new RV.
The fire quickly transformed their dreams of a carefree life in their new home-away-from-home to a nightmare.
The Oregon family had purchased the 40-foot-long Heartland Road Warrior, a fifth-wheel trailer and "toy hauler" made by a subsidiary of Indiana-based Thor Industries, just one day earlier. The price tag was more than $100,000.
Excited to enjoy the new luxury RV, they hit the road for a trip to visit family in Utah, their RV in tow.
But they only made it to Montana before the fire broke out near the rolling trailer's electrical panel.
Pulling to the side of the road, Doman called 911 as she rushed to get her newborn out of the backseat of the family's pickup truck. Her 16-year-old son grabbed the crate carrying their two puppies. Her husband scrambled to disconnect the RV’s propane tank to avoid an explosion.
Somewhere in the chaos, a good Samaritan came to help. The fire spread within minutes.
Instead of spending the night in their new RV, Doman and her family found themselves standing near a rural Montana highway, in the middle of a snowy winter night, with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a diaper bag.
Nearby, a thick cloud of smoke wafted into the sky as firefighters hosed down the last embers.
“There goes our fifth wheel, toy hauler, everything in it. Oh my gosh,” Doman said in a video she later posted on YouTube. “I think I’m gonna throw up.”
Pandemic drove demand for RVs
The desire to get away from home yet remain isolated introduced a new kind of lifestyle for many people during the pandemic. Recreational vehicles and trailers like Doman's offered a vacation anywhere with all the comforts of home but not the crowds, costs or hassles of commercial travel.
The RV industry — one of the biggest manufacturing sectors in Indiana — was quick to capitalize on this new and unprecedented demand.
Last year, more RVs were built and sold than ever. Profits also soared to record highs.
But on factory floors, already harried workers — some with only limited training — were pressed to build more and faster to meet higher production quotas, several current and former RV employees told IndyStar.
The result is an expensive product that, in a growing number of cases, critics claim doesn't live up to the worry-free, unencumbered lifestyle the industry promises. It's a dream buyers often shell out six figures or more to enjoy.
Instead of traveling the country as they had planned, a growing number of RV owners are finding themselves stuck in hotel rooms, spending thousands of dollars they didn’t plan to spend.
Meanwhile, RVs cycle in and out of repair shops. Some sit for months waiting to be fixed or for parts held up by global supply-chain issues.
Some belong to families who sold their houses to commit to the RV lifestyle full time. Some are owned by retirees with grand plans for their golden years and money to burn. Others are first-time owners. Their horror stories show up in lawsuits and a jump in recall notices.
The RV industry disputes claims of quality issues.
Thor Industries, the largest RV maker in the country and owner of Heartland RV, which made Doman's fifth wheel, said all of its companies have "robust quality standards," from its vendors and raw materials to the final inspections before the products are delivered to the dealers.
"Within the Thor family of companies," Thor said in a statement to IndyStar, "the customer experience is our ultimate measure of success."
Heartland RV didn't respond to a request for comment.
The RV Industry Association, a trade group and lobbyist for RV companies, also defended the industry's products. In a statement to IndyStar, the association said it has a program for all of its members that includes unannounced inspections to make sure factories are following safety standards on plumbing, propane, electrical and fire safety systems.
But RV owners, including those who bought units from Thor-owned companies, complain of problems that range from cracks on cabinets and improperly installed ceiling fans to more serious ones such as mold due to water damage, faulty electrical wiring and gas leaks. Many of those complaints can be found on social media, which is home to a large and active RV community.
Issues have become so common that another RV owner dubbed the units “COVID trailers.” If they’re built in the last two years, expect a lot of problems, RV owner John Kucharski told IndyStar.
The problems can run from minor annoyances to life-threatening dangers.
“I’m just glad we weren’t asleep in that RV,” said Doman. “Or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Recalls up, quality down, critics say
The quality of RVs has been declining for at least the last 15 years, according to Ron Burdge, an Ohio attorney who has spent decades suing RV manufacturers over defective products.
Consolidations during economic downturns meant less competition and lower quality, Burdge said. Because of financial pressures, companies also had to build more cheaply to keep their profit margins. But, he added, this continued even during good economic years.
"And when they came out of that recession back in '08, quite frankly, my experience has been that they decided that, 'Hey, we can sell these things with less quality and make just as much money. So why should we go back to building better quality?'" he said. "And they just kept doing it. And it's only gotten worse over the years since then."
Recalls became more and more common — in part because parts suppliers are also under pressure to build fast, Burdge said. Defective products that go to multiple manufacturers meant multitudes of recalls.
Recalls jumped even more during the pandemic years.
Since 2020, three of the biggest RV manufacturers in the country have recalled hundreds of thousands of their products, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Companies owned by Thor Industries, the largest RV maker in the country, recalled more than 156,000 RVs this year. Forest River, a subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, recalled nearly 200,000 RVs this year. Winnebago Industries recalled more than 125,000 RVs this year.
All are among the highest for each company in the last five years.
Among the problems that led to recalls: gas leaks, various electrical issues, increased propane pressure and poorly installed awnings.
In its statement to IndyStar, Thor Industries said the quality of its units went up even as factories were producing more. The company cited its lower warranty claims for products sold during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic years. But that doesn't account for the recalls.
Forest River didn't respond to requests for comment. Winnebago Industries didn't answer questions about alleged quality issues.
The pandemic also exposed a longstanding problem on factory floors, an IndyStar investigation found. RV workers don’t need a license or certification to do electrical work and often receive little training to install plumbing or furnaces, several workers said. This has led not only to worker injuries, but also to problems with the products.
Kyle Ferguson worked in the industry for a decade, moving from one factory to another, before he quit last year. He said he was often rushing to finish units every day to keep up with production demands. At his last factory, the daily quota went up to 36 RVs a day.
Now, he fears buyers will have to take their RVs back to the dealers.
Because he spent years building RVs, Ferguson said, he would never buy one for himself.
"I would never ever — ever," he said. "I would never recommend a single one to anyone because I know how they’re built."
‘The worst day of my life’
The RV industry advertises itself well, said Burdge, the attorney who represents disgruntled owners. And there is some truth to the images it draws: Happy families. A carefree lifestyle. Freedom.
A young man and woman looking at a map as they plan their next adventure. Families enjoying cookouts around a campfire. Couples huddling together near the beach to watch the sunset, their home just a few feet away.
A nearly four-minute video on Thor Industries’ website shows the idealized version of RV life, proclaiming: “Go Everywhere; Stay Anywhere.”
"But what they’re not telling people," Burdge said, "is that the RV that you buy today might well fall apart tomorrow."
The reality that confronted Doman in the hours after their RV was reduced to a charred ruin is a far cry from those blissful images. Sitting in a hotel room in Dillon, Montana, with her baby boy pressed against her chest, Doman sobbed.
“I think this is the worst day of my life,” she said in a video.
Her husband, Trent Doman, was in the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation. The breast milk Doman had pumped and saved for her 6-week-old son was gone. So were all the clothes the family packed for what should have been a two-week road trip.
She had to find a Safeway earlier that night to buy toothbrushes, diapers, baby formula and other basic necessities.
What happened to Doman and her family is a stark — perhaps extreme — example of what can go wrong.
‘You just know you’re going to buy crap’
Others, like John Kucharski, face a steady stream of issues that are not as devastating but add up to far more than just inconveniences.
Kucharski, a longtime camper, had spent years saving enough money to buy a brand-new RV. His plan was to spend his retirement years traveling the country with his fiancée.
So in December, he bought a brand new Keystone Cougar, a 40-foot trailer, and paid the full price of $80,000. But problems became apparent as soon as he brought the RV home to Mesa, Arizona.
Among a long list of more than a dozen problems: The slide outs — portions of the RV that expand to create more living space — aren’t sliding out properly. There’s a rip on the kitchen floor. The frame of the back window is bent. The bolts that hold one of the couches together are stripped, so the back of the couch falls off. Drawers aren’t opening properly.
“All these things are fixable and, at some point in the trailer’s life, will go wrong,” Kucharski said. “But when you buy brand new — and we’re talking about a lot of money … And to get home and see all this shoddy work.”
The RV was sitting in a repair shop just three weeks after Kucharski bought it.
By August, a day before Kucharski was about to go on a six-day road trip, he saw the roof was coming off and large air bubbles had formed on its outer layer.
As some problems were fixed, new ones piled up.
“I don’t even know where to begin. I would be so outrageously angry if I wasn’t so disgusted,” Kucharski said in a scathing email he sent last month to Keystone RV and the dealership.
Keystone RV did not respond to a request for comment.
But no matter how angry he becomes, Kucharski said he knows not much will change.
“Manufacturers and dealers expect consumers to fall in line to buy RVs. So why make them better?” Kucharski said. “You just know you’re going to buy crap.”
‘It’s like the Wild West’
What happens — from factory floors to dealerships to repair shops — is a long and "vicious cycle" that leaves costumers "frustrated and fed up,” said longtime RV owner Robert Simmons.
When owners call dealerships about the problems, they say, they're told to call the manufacturers because the issues are covered by warranty. Some say they’re told to call the parts suppliers. No matter where they turn for help, the wait is often several months.
"This entire industry has become lawless. It’s like the Wild West,” said Simmons, who's from Columbus, Ohio. “They just don’t care.”
Simmons and his wife bought their second RV, a brand-new luxury RiverStone Legacy — a product of Forest River — in April. He called it the Mercedes Benz or the Bentley of fifth wheels with a price tag of nearly $170,000.
Almost immediately, they found out that the bedroom slide out was retracting on its own. They had no hot or cold water. The washer and dryer didn't work. The refrigerator was tilting backward. The ceiling fan was not screwed properly, so it wobbled.
Frustrated after failing to find someone in the industry to help them, Simmons and his wife found a boat technician to fix the water problem. He said someone at the factory installed the main water valve backward.
"What the hell were you guys doing building this thing?" Simmons said, adding that while problems began at the factory, they should've been caught during the pre-delivery inspection at the dealership that consumers paid for.
For now, his RV is stranded at a friend's property in Oregon. He said they had to leave it there after discovering the trailer hitch was not welded properly.
'I could've lost everything'
Jenny Doman said problems began almost immediately after they bought their RV. The fuse kept blowing on their first night, which meant they didn’t have heat for hours. It was the middle of winter last year, just a few days before the holidays.
They headed southeast the next day. As night fell, she wanted to stop and get some sleep in the RV, but her husband insisted on driving a little longer, Doman recalled.
She shuddered at what would’ve happened if even just one thing happened differently.
If they stopped to sleep as she suggested. If there wasn’t an exit right when they needed to stop. If there wasn’t a bystander who helped Trent Doman disconnect the propane tank.
Jenny Doman estimates they lost about $40,000 worth of belongings from the fire.
She said the likely culprit was electrical, a problem that she believes began on the factory floor and was overlooked at the dealership. The insurance company, which Doman said covered the loss of the trailer, was unable to determine the exact cause of the fire because the RV was completely destroyed, but Doman said the investigator believed it was due to electrical issues.
Doman said no one has explicitly accepted responsibility for the fire, but the dealership sent her family clothes and gift cards after the incident. Heartland RV reached out to her asking for more information, including photos and videos of the fire, but Doman said she wants to talk to an attorney before responding to the manufacturer.
Months after the fire, her husband was still waking up in the middle of the night. Her teenage son was having nightmares. Even the presence of a propane tank at their house scares her now.
One time, her neighbor was burning a huge pile of garbage, and just the smell of smoke made her panic.
The family has decided not to get another RV, at least not for a while.
"I've never been so terrified in my entire life," Doman said. "I could've lost everything in a matter of minutes."
Contact IndyStar reporter Kristine Phillips at (317) 444-3026 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @bykristinep. Contact IndyStar reporter Binghui Huang at (317) 385-1595 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @binghuihuang.