Justin Flieth keeps a close watch on his charcoal grill whenever it's lit on the porch of his apartment building.
He makes sure to keep it on the cement of the ground floor when it's out.
But the 24-year-old Albany Park resident can't say the same for his neighbors, who have a large gas grill and host parties almost every Saturday.
"I think the city should put constraints on using grills on wood porches," Flieth said. "Not everyone's going to be a safe griller."
Porch grilling may be a popular pastime in Chicago, but it's also a dangerous one. Last month, a porch fire in Lakeview spread to the levels above, gutting the highest porches on the third and fourth floors and rendering the condos uninhabitable until builders could fix the smoke and water damage, according to reports. The cause: a gas grill.
Caoimhe McDonnell, 21, of Ravenswood, lives with a group of students in a house with a large propane grill. When she first moved in, she and her roommates used it often while they waited for their gas to get turned on. The grill has caused small problems, but nothing as big as a porch fire. According to McDonnell, the grill has burned many hands and sometimes smokes enough that cooking becomes impossible, so she said she understands why grilling can be dangerous.
"It wouldn't shock me if something happened," McDonnell said. "I don't feel like it's any more dangerous than having a stove and leaving the gas on. ... You have to keep alert."
Although there is no official count of porch fires caused by barbecue grills, Larry Langford, director of media affairs for the Chicago Fire Department , said a considerable number of fires start that way.
"If a porch really catches fire, we're going to get called," Langford said. "They're generally pretty smoky, so we get called right away." He said that people usually don't admit to starting fires with grills, but "it's not hard for our people to figure out what causes it. The office of fire investigation is pretty smart in determining what starts a fire. The evidence usually points to improper grilling."
Despite the potential dangers associated with porch grilling, Chicago's municipal code has no laws prohibiting residents from doing so. The only measure that comes close to restricting porch grilling is a law outlawing propane gas in buildings that house more than 20 people. Landlords and condo associations are free to establish regulations for tenants.
Tim Kerfin, owner of Kerfin Inspections, regularly inspects properties with grills set up on wood porches. He said that of the 1,500 inspections he'll do in a year, at least 70 percent have grills, even where the municipal code forbids them.
"I've seen it all the time in buildings above 20 occupants," Kerfin said. "They all do it. Unless it's like a high rise without decks, in your common 12- or 24-flat, I see grilling going on all the time. Someone has a grill guaranteed. No one thinks anything of it."
Albert Zorn of City Wide Fire Protection Services installs fire safety equipment such as fire extinguishers and emergency lighting for businesses and fireproofs rooftops where people host barbecues. He said he hears of roof- or porch-top decks catching fire from a barbecue grill every couple of years, but he said he doesn't believe it's very common. Still, he said, grilling on a wooden deck without safety measures is "a bad combination." Zorn also said that propane grills are much easier to extinguish than charcoal, since you can shut their fuel source completely off.
Even with safety precautions and different types of grills, Kerfin said, grilling on a porch can be dangerous. "The bottom line is on a wood porch you should not be grilling, but people are going to do it anyway, that's a matter of fact," Kerfin said.
According to Langford, the best way to prevent a porch fire with a grill (other than getting rid of your grill entirely) is to use it responsibly. For Langford, this means keeping a constant watch on a grill in use. "Don't just put the meat on and leave it," Langford said. "Keep an eye on it all the time."
"It's not that it's inherently dangerous, it's just that it's something you have to watch for," Langford said. "Smoking a cigarette on the back porch can be just as dangerous, but we don't regulate that. You have to use common sense and use best practices whether smoking a cigarette or barbecuing."
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