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Fire Department Puts a Damper on Any Cookout

Safety: Make sure spiders haven't clogged the grill's gas lines, and don't leave that combustible charcoal out in the sun.

June 13, 1998|PHIL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nothing ruins a good cookout faster than a BLEVE.

That's firefighter-speak for a boiling liquid expansion vapor explosion--the nasty outcome when a flame or intense heat meets a leaky barbecue grill propane tank. Confronted with this kind of emergency, a quick-thinking backyard chef will start hosing the grill with water.

"Once it starts to sound like a high-pitched Piccolo Pete, it's ready to explode," said Gary Layman, a spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority. His advice at that point: run.

Summer's almost back--and, while backyard chefs are dusting off their grills, firefighters and barbecue industry folks are churning out safety tips in the hope of keeping a few poor souls from searing more than just marinated chicken. It's a losing battle.

What bold cook hasn't tempted fate by dousing a waning charcoal fire with lighter fluid?

Common sense sometimes takes a holiday when people cook out.

When it rains, people move charcoal grills inside--and fill the house with deadly carbon monoxide fumes.

When the automatic gas-grill starter fails, some fearless chefs crank up the gas and start tossing matches into the breach. The result: a human-sized fireball.

"It can singe your eyebrows or something else," said Donna Myers, an Amerigas spokeswoman who has been grilling for 30 years. "If you have to try to light the grill a second time, the best thing to do is turn off the gas and wait five minutes. It gives the grill time to air out."

Most barbecue mishaps are avoidable if backyard chefs would pause to read instructions. Safety tips seem obvious: "Do not lean over a barbecue grill when igniting," reads a Weber Grill safety brochure.

But what about the hidden perils of barbecuing? Like spiders. Gas-grill manufacturers have found that pesky arachnids like to nest in the tubing of gas grills. It's mostly a nuisance, but the wrong blockage could be dangerous, experts say.

An even smaller barbecue threat: bacteria. Nasty organisms that live in raw meat can linger on hands, plates and cooking utensils or improperly cooked food. Sending guests trucking to the emergency room with food poisoning is a sure way to make your first summer cookout your last.

How about spontaneous briquette combustion? Most folks don't realize that leaving a wet bag of charcoal briquettes out to dry in the sun is a fire hazard. As the briquettes dry, a chemical reaction causes them to heat up and--whoosh--the side of the house is on fire. Ready-to-light briquettes are even more likely to catch fire in the sun, Layman said.

Cooking out is generally a pretty safe pastime, but in the interest of safe grilling, here a few tips from the experts:

* Make sure your grill is steady. A toppled grill during cooking is bad.

* Keep kids and pets clear of the grill.

* Check the area around the grill. Plants, awnings, gasoline cans and, yes, even the side of your house can catch fire under the right conditions.

* Be fashion conscious. Aprons with silly slogans and big hats are fine, but shirts with loose sleeves or clothes with dangling threads provide a nice avenue for fire to climb out of the grill and onto you.

Charcoal

* Skip the fiery thrill of lighter fluid and use an electric fire starter--around $7 and it's reusable. It's also better for the environment than pouring lighter fluid emissions into the atmosphere.

* If you do use charcoal lighter fluid, accept no substitutes. Besides harboring nasty toxins, gasoline and paint thinner will give the improvising backyard chef a lot more fire than he or she bargained for.

* Don't dump used briquettes for at least 48 hours. They take that long to cool.

Gas

* On a gas grill, light only one burner at a time. When the automatic switch fails, turn off the gas so that it won't build up while you light a match. Turn on the gas after the match is lit.

* If your gas tank was manufactured before October 1995, consider replacing it. Newer tanks have a government-mandated QCC1 valve that won't work if hoses are improperly connected. It also has a plastic safety valve that melts and cuts off the gas during a serious grease fire.

* After a long period of storage, check gas grills for spiders. Warning signs when the grill is on include uneven heating, popping sounds and gas odors.

* Store spare gas tanks away from the grill. Never store a spare can indoors.

Food

* Wash everything--hands, plates, utensils, you name it--that comes in contact with raw meat before touching cooked food or salad.

* Don't baste food with the marinade you soaked the meat in. Make two batches: one to marinate and one to baste. Or boil that marinade before basting with it.

* Use a meat thermometer. Red meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees; pork isn't done until it hits 160 degrees inside, and chicken should be cooked to at least 180 degrees. Avoid letting the thermometer touch bone, which can cause a false reading.

* Before cooking, keep meat in a cooler or refrigerator at a minimum of 40 degrees.

* Don't char food. Some studies found the blackened material on grilled meat can be carcinogenic. Scrape old char off the grill before cooking.

* For more tips on cooking out, call the Weber Grill hotline at (800) 474-5568.

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