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5 Worst Barbecue Blunders

Cookouts can be a fun way for family and friends to spend time together, but make sure to use some common sense.
Cookouts can be a fun way for family and friends to spend time together, but make sure to use some common sense.
Hemera/Thinkstock

The barbeque is a great American tradition. So too, apparently, is messing it up to the point where folks risk life, limb and property (not to mention dinner). You're almost guaranteed to find a few cookout-related entries each year among the Darwin Awards' "winners" -- those darkly humorous honors given to the remarkably creative ways some people help strengthen the gene pool by thinning the human herd.

Between 2005 and 2009, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 8,200 home fires involving grills, hibachi or barbecues each year -- including an average of 3,400 structure fires and 4,800 outside fires, resulting in $75 million in direct property damage [source: NFPA].

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In 2009 alone, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, nearly 18,000 people found themselves in a hospital emergency room with burns and blisters suffered in grilling-related accidents [source: Aleccia]. Some injuries were minor, but others were fatal, which underscores the importance of barbecue safety.

Don't believe the statistics? Just ask any firefighter, or ER doctor or nurse, and you're bound to get a slew of sordid tales of would-be chefs getting scorched -- or worse. That's what we did, checking in with Lt. Hank Balch, a 24-year veteran firefighter with the Manchester, N.H., Fire Department.

"I could write a book called, 'Is that how dumb human beings are?' or become a stand-up comedian," says Balch, 55. "I'd have enough material to last me the rest of my life."

Given Manchester's multicultural mix, with a large immigrant population, Balch says he's seen a mind-boggling array of barbecue-related mishaps, especially among residents who either didn't know any better or were too inebriated to make responsible decisions. Unfortunately, a number would easily qualify for the Darwin Awards, though it's difficult to make light of such dangerous situations.

Are you grilling under the influence?

Asked how many barbecue mishaps are alcohol-related, Balch immediately replies "All of them." Then he laughs, and adjusts his estimates to "around 95 percent."

His message is clear: The overwhelming majority of BBQ-related accidents happen because people are under the influence, which often results in bad decisions. Alcohol is what leads people to think it's OK to squirt lighter fluid on lit coals, without stopping to think of the flashback potential that lands hundreds of grillers in the hospital each year.

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Balch recalls one instance when his crew was called to a house were a couple of guys were cooking over a homemade grill consisting of a 55-gallon drum covered in chicken wire.

"I could tell the guys were just blitzed, and the steaks were just incinerated. They could hardly walk, and they thought it was so funny that the fire department was there," says Balch. "So I told them I'd let them have their little barbecue, but that I'd be back in half and hour, and it had better be out."

The crew didn't even make it back to the station before getting called back to the same house.

"They had gone inside and passed out," Balch said. "The wind kicked up, blew some leaves on the grill, and before they knew it, the whole backyard ... and their neighbor's fence was on fire."

The lesson learned? If you're going to grill and drink, imbibe in moderation.

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."

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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.

There's only one place you should even consider barbecuing, and that's outside, away from any buildings. That includes tents and garages. Porches and decks, especially on older homes and multi-family buildings, also pose a fire danger. Twenty-nine percent of home fires involving grills between 2005 and 2009 started on a courtyard, terrace or patio, and 28 percent started on an exterior balcony or open porch [source: NFPA].

In Manchester, N.H., which has a large immigrant population, there have been reports of people using antique cast-iron bathtubs to grill, says Balch. That can create a smoke-inhalation risk by itself, but can be worse when they suggest that friends with Fiberglas bathtubs try the same thing. But even people cooking on small, propane-fueled grills indoors pose an enormous health hazard if the fumes aren't vented outside.

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"Carbon monoxide tricks the hemoglobin in the blood so quickly," says Balch. "The hemoglobin likes the carbon monoxide a thousand times more than it likes oxygen. So if you get a big lungful of carbon monoxide, your hemoglobin will grab onto that carbon monoxide and won't let go of it. Now your hemoglobin is full of carbon monoxide, and you asphyxiate yourself because you can't get any oxygen to attach to your blood."

Even more staggering is the miniscule amounts of CO that can prove fatal. "It doesn't take much before you get sick -- 3,000 parts per million," says Balch. "At 16,000 parts per million, you're dead in three minutes. It's very, very toxic. Carbon monoxide is the silent killer.

"You have so many petroleum products in your house -- the couch, the carpet, the curtains -- everything has gas in it," says Balch. "That black smoke with the curly Q's in it? One big sniff of that, you'll pass out and you'll lie there and breathe that, saturating your body. You'll be dead long before the fire kills you. It only takes three minutes, and you're out."

Lesson learned? If Mother Nature puts a damper on your grilling plans, put them aside for another day.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, gas or propane grills constitute a higher risk for accident. Statistics collected by the group show that gas grills were involved in an annual average of 6,900 home fires between 2005 and 2009, while charcoal or other solid-fueled grills were involved in an annual average of 1,100 home fires over the same period [source: NFPA].

Furthermore, remember that water isn't the cure-all for a gas-fed fire. Balch says he'll never forget his first call on the job, when he arrived to find a two-story building engulfed in huge, blue flames, but no sign of smoke.

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"Usually, with a fire, you've got tons of smoke, [but] it was these beautiful blue flames. I run around the back of the house, and my jaw nearly hit the ground," says Balch. "The fire was coming out of the pool -- the water itself. These huge blue flames are lapping off this above-ground pool."

The guy who was cooking apparently panicked when the hose from the propane tank popped off the back of the grill, creating a flashback fire when he started the grill.

"So now the propane is spewing out all over the place, and he's got fire all over," says Balch. "So what does he do? He grabs the entire barbecue and throws it into his pool. And as the gas bubbled out the propane tank, to the surface, the flames would lick back to where the gas was coming from. So we just sat back and waited until the propane tank ran out."

The key was that the propane kept feeding the flames, much like an acetylene torch will burn underwater.

"And the comical thing was that the guy lost all his hair" when he grabbed the grill, says Balch. "It looked liked somebody took a match and went right through his bangs and arm hair and eyelashes and eyebrows -- all gone. He wasn't burnt, but he lost his hair."

Lesson learned? Take time to make sure your grill is in good working order, especially if it's the first cookout of the season, and even if you store the grill indoors in the off-season. Check hoses and connections to make certain they're secure. Replace any worn parts. If you suspect a leak, you can check by rubbing a film of soapy water over the gas line. If you smell gas, contact the fire department immediately. Know the "Stop, Drop, and Roll" technique of damping flames if your clothes catch fire. And keep a quality home-size fire extinguisher nearby.

Smokey the Bear is instantly associated with his time-honored warning, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires." Well, the same holds true for the backyard barbecue. When you're done cooking, remember that even though it may look like the fire is out, it's possible there could still be embers burning beneath a blanket of briquette ash.

"And what do they do? They go to the garage and throw the ash in the plastic garbage can, with the dirty rags and stuff like that, then close it and walk out," Balch said. "And three hours later, they're saying 'Those little arsonists got into our garbage cans!' No, you big knucklehead: You put the ashes in the garbage yourself [without making sure they were out] and started it on fire."

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Lesson learned: Like a campfire, charcoal briquettes need to be watered down thoroughly after grilling. Mix the ash as you water it, churning it up to douse any burning embers. Don't be in a rush to discard the ashes -- often the safest place to let them smother is the bottom of the grill itself. Use a non-flammable container, such as metal, to dispose the ash.

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Sources

  • Aleccia, JoNel. "Great Balls of Fire: Grill injuries can ruin your cookout." MSNBC. July 2, 2010 (Feb. 13, 2012) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38047717/ns/health-health_care/t/great-balls-fire-grill-injuries-can-ruin-your-cookout/#.Tz0eUF2Gsbt
  • Balch, Hank. Lieutenant, Manchester Fire Department. Personal interview. Feb. 15, 2012.
  • NFPA. "Grilling." National Fire Protection Association. (Feb. 14, 2012) http://www.nfpa.org/itemDetail.asp?categoryID=298&itemID=18346&URL=Research%20&%20Reports/Fact%20sheets/Seasonal%20safety/Grilling&cookie_test=1
  • USDA. "Barbecue and Food Safety." U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service. May 24, 2011 (Feb. 13, 2012) http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Factsheets/Barbecue_Food_Safety/

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