Southport Porch Fire Highlights Dangers of Grilling

By Patty Wetli | Monday, July 9, 2012

Top two decks completely destroyed, lower two scorched in grill fire on Southport. Credit: Patty Wetli

While fire safety experts spent the days leading up to the 4th of July weekend warning Chicagoans of the hazards of fireworks, a seemingly innocent yet equally dangerous activity was seldom referenced: grilling on wooden porches and decks. Yet one look at the boarded up windows and charred wreckage caused by a July 6 porch fire at 3342 N. Southport Ave. is all the evidence needed to remind homeowners that burgers and brats can wreak just as much havoc as sparklers and fire crackers.

A gas grill on the first floor porch of the four-story building was the main culprit in the Southport extra-alarm blaze. “The flame, for some reason, got very high,” according to a spokesman for Fire Media Affairs. It quickly scorched the deck above and continued to spread upwards. A unit owner on the scene confirmed for RVJ that the condos would not be habitable for some time, largely due to smoke and water damage.

Porches are particularly flammable due to decking materials and the open air environment. “They get all the oxygen they need,” he said of the flames.

The higher levels of the Southport building exhibited the most damage, a common feature of fires. “Fire goes to the top and starts burning its way back down,” said the spokesman. “The top floor may have fire inside, but the fire department is usually on the scene by the time it reaches the ground level.”

Given Chicago’s history with fire (see: Mrs. O’Leary’s cow), there’s surprisingly little regulation when it comes to grilling on decks. Aside from an ordinance related to high-rises, it’s essentially a free for all. Although condo associations may make recommendations to homeowners, neither gas nor charcoal grills are expressly prohibited, according to the spokesman.

“It’s a matter of common sense on safety,” he said, and offered the following tips: never leave a grill unattended, only ignite the amount of flame absolutely necessary for cooking purposes, and always detach the propane tank from the grill when not in use. “That propane is equal to several sticks of dynamite,” he noted. Food for thought before your next cookout turns into a literally flame-broiled affair.

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