Memorial Day grilling: How to grill safe

Our view: Invite friends, not firefighters, to your Memorial Day cookout

May 30, 2011

Full of vim, vigor and perhaps a beverage or two, you roll out the barbecue grill for a Memorial Day cookout, but then something unfortunate occurs and you suddenly have unexpected visitors at your home: members of the local fire department.

The scenario happens more frequently that we care to admit. One national study pegged the average number of fires involving grills, hibachis and barbecues that summoned firefighters at 7,700 a year. These fires caused an estimated $70 million in property damage.

In the Baltimore area, there have been at least two notable incidents of Memorial Day cookouts gone wrong. Four years ago, Baltimore County firefighters, eight engines and three trucks battled a Memorial Day blaze in White Marsh that started when a propane grill on a third floor deck caught fire and spread flames onto a neighboring house. In 1993, a spectacular fire occurred when an Owings Mills man wheeled his flaming gas grill away from his garage, only to have it topple over and ignite a nearby car. The fire spread to three other vehicles and the garage. The man was treated for burns.

As our appetite for grilled food grows — three out of four American households own at least one grill — a number of organizations have studied cookout accidents and are issuing their annual Memorial Day reminders about safe procedures. A collection of websites, including one by the National Fire Protection Association, have produced videos demonstrating safe grilling procedures.

On Memorial Day and early in the cookout season, the culprit is often rust — both on the grill and in the cook's techniques. Gas grills account for most grill fires, and over the winter the tubes that mix gas with air and deliver it to the grill can get blocked. Thoroughly cleaning the tubes with brushes before firing up is recommended. Gas leaks are also a concern. The recommended ritual is to brush soapy water on the joints and check for bubbles, which are a sign of leaks. Tighten any fittings that bubble or take troublesome fittings to a dealer for repair. The hoses that connect gas tanks to the grill seem to be favored snacks of squirrels and should be inspected for bite marks and leaks.

As in real estate, location matters when grilling. A common cause of grill fires is positioning the grill too close to "combustibles." Those would be your house, your balcony, your porch, your overhanging tree limb. You should maintain a 10- to 15-foot buffer space between your grill and anything flammable.

Another mistake is allowing children to get too close to a hot grill. Of the estimated 3,800 grill fire burns treated in emergency rooms in 2010, almost half involved children under age 5. The area around a grill should be a "no-kid" zone, patrolled by adults.

The most dangerous time of the cookout is starting the fire. About one third of all gas grill fires occur at ignition, which is why authorities recommend lifting the grill lid to disperse any gas buildup before lighting the flame. A quarter of charcoal grill flare-ups happen when the grillers reapply more lighter fluid to the briquettes after the fire has been started. One way to avoid squirting lighter fluid is to ignite the charcoal in a metal container with a ventilated wire bottom — a "chimney" — that holds briquettes. To start the process, you could crumple up this page of the newspaper (an impulse readers have from time to time), put it in the bottom of the chimney and set these opinions ablaze.

Soon the charcoal will be aglow, ready to be carefully poured into the pit of the grill. The victuals — burgers, steaks, fish fillets, corn, asparagus spears — will be grilled to crusty perfection. Memorial Day diners will heap praise on the cook. And the firemen will remain in their fire house.

Rob Kasper

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