July is a peak month for grill fires,” says Jeff Justus, community liaison for the Amarillo Fire Department and a longtime firefighter. “We can’t tell people they can’t cook on a grill. All we can do is just recommend you use good common sense.”
With the Panhandle still deep in a drought and with hot, windy conditions the norm—some counties remain under outdoor burn bans—the conditions are right for fire danger, whether that’s a wildfire outside the city limits or an unexpected backyard inferno.
But that doesn’t mean local grillmasters can’t light up their gas or charcoal grills. On behalf of AFD, Justus offers these tips for safe summer grilling.
Go outside. This seems like a common sense suggestion, but AFD has seen it all. Most grilling-related home fires result from poor location choice. “Usually it’s someone trying to get out of the wind or get into the shade. They’ll move the grill inside a garage or under a covered patio,” explains Justus. “The smoke and heat have nowhere to go. The next thing they know, they’ve caught the ceiling on fire.”
Steer clear. “Make sure you place your grill well away from your home or deck railings,” says Justus. “Don’t put it under tree branches or under the eaves of a house.” Sparks from a charcoal grill or flares from dripping grease can quickly grow out of control in high winds, so even grilling under a covered porch can be dangerous without enough clearance.
Stay aware. “Never leave your cooking unattended,” says Justus. That means don’t walk away from a lit grill and don’t get too engrossed by something on your phone. And keep children and pets away from the grill, he adds. He recommends a 3-foot safe zone around the grill. Protect yourself from burns by using long-handled barbecue tools.
Plan ahead. Clean your grill before and after each use to avoid grease or fat buildup, which can lead to unexpected flares. Always open the lid before firing up a gas grill—after you check the hoses. “You want to make sure everything’s connected properly before use,” he says. “If the flame goes out, turn the gas off and let it clear for 5 minutes before relighting. If any gas is trapped inside the grill, you don’t want it to flash on you.”
Limit lighter fluid. The use of lighter fluid with charcoal grills can easily result in an unintentionally larger fire, Justus warns. Electric charcoal starters or charcoal chimney starters tend to be safer. Regardless, “never add lighter fluid to the fire once it’s going,” says Justus.
Cool the coals. After using a charcoal grill, let the coals cool off completely before disposing of them in a trash can or dumpster. “We see a lot of people who dump hot coals into a trash can, and then we’ll have a dumpster fire,” he says.
Watch the wind. Accidental grill-related fires are much more common on windy days. Sometimes the wind even dictates a change in plans. “If it’s super-windy, be respectful and don’t grill,” says Justus. “Or, at least, have a bucket of water or a water hose nearby, just in case. Make sure you’re not out grilling in the middle of a field. Grill somewhere you can control it and watch over it.”
And if a grill fire does get out of hand, don’t hesitate to call the Fire Department. It’s easier to replace a ruined burger, steak or even a grill than to replace a home.