Though closely associated with excessive drinking, failing to pay attention to your barbecue can create headaches (and worse) for even sober grillers. We can get distracted by any number of household events, from the baseball game going into extra innings to the phone ringing, and from the kids being a nuisance to pets knocking things over. It's symptomatic of the multitasking world we live in.
"Very few barbecue accidents are an act of God," says Balch. "Most of them are because of neglect or inattention."
The reality is that grilling requires your full attention. Again, it's similar to driving. You can have a conversation or listen to music, but your primary focus has to be on the grill. The potential dangers are simply too great.
During one summer when the city of Manchester was on edge with a number of arson-related fires, Balch's crew responded to a call and found an unattended barbecue grill between two triple-decker buildings.
"It's roaring, because they have 60-percent fat burgers on it, that the fat is just feeding the flames that are coming up and out of it," he said. "I see these people sitting on the porch, and I ask them 'Who owns this?" And they say, 'They're upstairs, fighting.' And I hear this man and woman hollering at each other upstairs on the third floor."
Balch, in full gear, bounded up the three flights of stairs and knocked on the door. The woman, without opening the door, asked who it was, and after Balch identified himself, sent her husband to answer.
"I ask the guy, 'Are you cooking burgers downstairs?'" Balch remembers. "And the guy's expression went from 'What the hell are you doing at my door?' to 'Oh my god, I forgot the fire, I forgot that I was cooking burgers.' And I told him, 'I think your burgers are done.'"
The burgers were still raw on top, but had a half-inch of charred crust underneath. Balch told his crew to hose down the grill.
The lesson learned? If you need to leave the grill, turn down the flame or remove the food and/or charcoal until you can get back to business, giving it your undivided attention. And be sure to clean your grill thoroughly to prevent grease fires. When the fire department has to respond to your out-of-control cookout, it keeps a crew out of service in case a serious fire is reported.