Safe summer grilling: Barbecuing can be safe if a few precautions are taken | SierraSun.com

Safe summer grilling: Barbecuing can be safe if a few precautions are taken

Corey Fisher
cfisher@theunion.com

While barbecuing is considered an integral part of summer, fire safety experts warn that along with the season's outdoor celebrations come far too many unnecessary and tragic mishaps.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, 16,600 Americans ended up in the emergency room in 2014 due to injuries involving grills, which included 8,700 thermal burns. An average of 8,900 home fires each are started by grills, hibachis, or barbecues.

The tragic house fire that occurred June 16 on Carey Drive in Grass Valley is a sober reminder that small, 5-gallon propane tanks need to be carefully inspected prior to use. While still under investigation, a leaky valve is the likely culprit of the fire, officials say.

"Always inspect the lines that feed the barbecue," said Terry McMahan, deputy fire marshal for the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District. "They can weather over time, and when you change the propane tank, make sure the fittings are good."

Make-shift repairs are not recommended, stressed McMahan, who recalled a homeowner who lit his garage on fire by attempting to fix a gas leak by wrapping a towel around the hose.

"A propane tank is like having a bomb on your property, whether it's the large house tank or a 5-gallon grill tank," said Joanne Drummond, the executive director of the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County. "While propane companies generally check the fittings on house tanks, it's up to the homeowner to make sure the grill tanks are safe. You might take it to get filled, then let it roll around in the back of your truck, not paying much attention."

Recommended Stories For You

Drummond recommends the soapy water test, where all hoses and connections are sprayed with soapy water before use. If soapy water begins bubbling, there's a gas leak.

Sixty two percent of households nationwide own gas grills, which are known to cause a much higher number of fires than charcoal grills, reports the National Fire Protection Association.

Never grill too close to the house, in a carport, under eaves or near overhanging branches, added Drummond, and ashes must be disposed of in a metal container, as they can smolder for up to seven days.

But it's not just faulty equipment that causes accidents, stresses Drummond.

"Half of these incidents include skin burns — people using a grilling tool that's too short, or they don't use hot pads or they simply get too close to the flame," she added. "People tend to underestimate the intensity of the fire and are often not prepared. Loose clothing or a towel on the side of the barbecue can catch fire."

A common mistake is turning on the gas, leaving the cover down, then hitting the igniter, which can cause an explosion due to gas build up. Keep the lid open before lighting the grill and light it immediately after turning on the gas. If a barbecue doesn't light after hitting the igniter switch several times, shut off the gas and wait three to five minutes for the gas to dissipate. If there is a gas smell while cooking, immediately get away from the grill and call the fire department.

In 2014, the National Fire Protection Association reported that the leading causes of grill fires were a failure to clean (grease fires), having the grill too close to something that could catch fire and leaving the grill unattended.

"A lot of times people are relaxing and recreating while grilling — there could be some adult beverages involved," said Drummond. "It's easy to forget what's on the grill. I recommend having a 'designated griller' — someone assigned to keeping a close eye on the flames."

Those using charcoal to cook should only use fluid intended for charcoal grills — and never add lighter fluid to kindling or coals that have already ignited. Never use gasoline.

Of course, if the proper precautions are taken, grilling can be safe, said Drummond, it's just that people tend to underestimate the power of fire, which can double in size every minute. That's why having a hose and fire extinguisher nearby is a must.

"It's not like the old days when parents would pass on the hazards of fire to their children," said Drummond. "In past generations, people cooked with fire all the time so they learned. Today we just flip a switch."

Grill safety tips:

Propane and charcoal barbecue grills should be placed well away from the home, deck railings and overhanging branches or roofs.

Keep grills clean by removing grease or fat build up on grills and trays underneath.

Never leave a grill unattended.

Make sure a propane grill lid is open before lighting it.

For charcoal grills, only use starter fluid intended for grilling.

Let coals cool in a metal container before disposing. Never use cardboard or plastic.

For more information visit the National Fire Protection Association at http://www.nfpa.org.