Every year U.S. fire departments respond to nearly 10,000 home fires involving grills, hibachis or barbecues, according to the National Fire Protection Association. That’s a staggering number — not least because I didn’t know that hibachis still existed. On a serious note, these statistics should not be taken lightly as these fires result in an average of 10 civilian deaths each year, 160 reported injuries, and more than $13 million in direct property damage.
Of the nearly 10,000 fires each year, 4,100 are structure fires and 5,500 are outside property / unclassified damage. Almost all of the $13 million in losses each year are from the structure fires. That’s an average of $31,000 and change per structure damaged — these aren’t little fires.
1. Clean the grill
So how can you avoid becoming one of these grim statistics? As with most risk management, it’s easier than you think. The same NFPA report previously mentioned tells us that 22% of the structure fires were the result of a grill that hadn’t been cleaned. If you are anything like me, taking time to clean the grill before each use seems like a messy and unpleasant chore that seems to yield minimal benefit — after all, the chicken will taste the same whether I tidy up or not, right? But, that 22% number is eye-catching.
Cleaning the grill before lighting it up isn’t about making the chicken (or steaks, ribs or burgers) taste better; it’s about protecting myself, my family and my home. If I have a grill fire that burns my house and injures my family, no one will care how the chicken tasted. Get yourself some disposable gloves, a good wire bristle brush and a scraper and spend 10 minutes cleaning up from last time before lighting up again. Your local fire department would much rather be grilling hot dogs on its own barbeque than rushing to your house to put the fire out.
2. Stay away from flammable material
A startling 17% of grill-based home fires start because the grill was set up too close to flammable material. That’s 1 in 6 fires. Give your grill lots of space, keep it away from walls, low overhangs (11% of these fires start when an outside wall catches fire, the other 6% involve some type of structural element wood framing), fences, dry grass, or anything else that is combustible. Grilling is all about harnessing a small friendly fire and getting it to work for you. Don’t give it a chance to become a hostile fire.
3. Watch the fire
While we’re on the subject — don’t turn your back on a fire. Fire isn’t inherently evil, but it is a powerful, destructive force when left to its own devices. One in 6 backyard grilling fires stem from inattention. Pour a glass of iced tea and pull up a lawn chair — and keep an eye on that fire for the duration. Having a water hose close at hand (connected to a hose bib well away from the grill so that turning the water on doesn’t require you to brave the inferno) is just good risk management also!
4. Know the difference between gas and charcoal grills
This isn’t the time or the place to start the debate about the superiority of one type of grill over another, but we do need to acknowledge that there are differences between gas grills and charcoal grills. For one thing, gas grills have a tank full of additional fuel hooked up to them, while charcoal bags are usually stored a little bit farther away.
The NFPA reports that from 2011–2015, 82% of home fires caused by outdoor grilling involved gas grills. Twelve percent of gas grill fires reported in that interval were the result of a leak or break in the gas line, regulator or tank of gas grills. —Every bit as important as cleaning your grill regularly is proactive maintenance! Inspect your gas lines and valve frequently. The sniff test is handy — commercially available propane gas is infused with a compound called mercaptan, an organosulfur compound found naturally in the blood and brain of humans, which makes the otherwise odorless propane gas smell of rotten eggs. If you smell anything unpleasant near your propane tank, think twice about lighting that match.
A spray bottle of soapy water can help to spot tiny leaks — douse the suspect area with several sprays of soapy water and look for bubbles forming after the spray settles. The soap increases the surface tension of the water, making the bubbles formed by escaping propane gas persist for a few seconds and sometimes even “stack” on each other so that they are easy to spot.
5. Keep children away from the grill
One last area of risk management that I cannot stress enough: Keep small children well away from the grill! The NFPA reports that children under five account for 1,600 or 35% of contact-type burns reported every year. These burns result from accidentally touching (bumping into, falling on or grabbing) the hot grill or hot coals. Please keep your children at a safe distance, and dispose of spent charcoal only after it is thoroughly cold (charcoal can smolder for days under a layer of seemingly cold ashes). In 2015 the Charlotte Observer reported that three house fires in Charlotte, N.C. were the result of smoldering charcoal being dumped into trash cans. Three homes in a single grilling season, in a town of less than a million people — that’s far too many.
Risk management recap
As we head into what looks like another fabulous summer grilling season, please take a few minutes to engage in some basic grilling risk management:
Clean your grill regularly. Move your grill well away from combustible materials and surfaces before igniting. Stay close to your grill while it is burning. If you have a gas grill, inspect the components regularly. Keep small children out of harm’s way.
With just a little attention to detail, we can all enjoy a summer full of delicious grilled food and keep our homes and families safe at the same time.