Summer Tradition Requires Caution

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By Jimmy Parks, MS, RN


Carolyn opens her pocketbook and pulls out a wallet-sized, plastic-coated photo album to show the man next to her on the plane. “Here’s Josey on graduation day. It was so humid we used a whole can of mousse to get her hair to do that. This is my husband, Ken. He hates this picture but I think it’s adorable.”

She goes on. She tells a thousand words for every picture. She flips over another, “This is from our camping trip to Colorado when Junior was three. He got up early and ran out of the tent. He tripped and fell face first into the cold ashes. He was such a mess! Doesn’t he look just like a little raccoon?”

There’s a skinny difference between physical comedy and serious injuries—precious memories and tragic reminders. But summer fun doesn’t have to include close calls. With a little forethought and a few precautions we can have a lot of fast-paced fun in the summer. No matter what kind of outdoor summer activities you like, good food makes it better and many people swear that food cooked outdoors tastes better than food cooked in the kitchen.

In Your Own Backyard

Before we talk about cooking on your great wilderness adventure, let’s talk about some good ol’ backyard home cooking. After all, the majority of Americans actually stay close to home for the summer—with gas at $3 a gallon, that’s not likely to change this year.

You should be good at making your kitchen a safe place by now. It took all winter but the kids finally learned that they are not to play in the kitchen. Now that the weather is nice, many of us are taking the kitchen out back. Fortunately, most of the rules stay the same. It’s the appliances that change.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 1998 there were 6,100 reported home fires involving gas or charcoal grills, leading to $29.1 million in direct property damage.

Here are some general rules about outdoor cooking: (We’ll discuss charcoal, gas grills, and campfires separately a little later.)

Keep kids out of the kitchen. Even if the kitchen is outside, create a safety zone around the cooking area where no kids are allowed.

  • Follow the directions, regardless of what kind of appliance you are using. 
  • Never use gasoline for any kind of cooking equipment.  
  • Wear short-sleeved or tight-fitting clothes while cooking.  
  • Use an insulated, fire-retardant barbeque mitt while cooking.  
  • Purchase lighters that say “child resistant” on the label, but remember that doesn’t mean they are “child proof.” 
  • Keep lighters and matches stored where children cannot get to them. 
  •  Don’t leave barbeque lighters or other ignition equipment stored outdoors as they can deteriorate in the weather and become unsafe. 
  • Don’t smoke while using lighter/starter fluid or a gas grill. Here are some things to remember about charcoal grilling in particular:  
  • Never add lighter/starter fluid to hot or even warm coals. An explosion can result.
  • Store lighter/starter fluid container well away from the grill.
  • If you spill lighter/starter fluid on your clothing, change clothes before continuing.

I’m told that real chefs like to cook with gas. It’s easier to adjust the cooking temperature and the heat is more consistent than charcoal. Gas can be even more dangerous if not used correctly though. Bring the subject up at a campground and you will hear a lot of stories about close calls and you will be shown a few scars that resulted from gas grill dysfunction or misconduct.

One self-described “professional” outdoor chef told me you should always have a jar of cold pickles near the grill when you cook. He said a grill once flashed up and burned his hand. All he had nearby was a jar of pickles which he dumped on his slightly singed hand. He claims it didn’t leave a scar or anything! If he really had a burn that didn’t leave a scar though, it’s not because of dill, vinegar, or cucumbers! He may think he’s a pro cook but, take it from burn care professionals, do not put pickle juice or any other food on a burn! A better idea is to have a source of cool water handy in case there is a burn. Better yet, consider these prevention ideas so you don’t have a burn to treat:

Most gas grill explosions are caused by gas leaks, blocked tubes, or overfilled propane tanks. Just like every heating and cooking appliance you use, make sure you read and follow all the instructions for use, maintenance, and storage.

Before you use your grill, check all the connections for gas leaks but do not use a match, lighter, or other flame to check for the leaks. A leak can be detected by spraying a little soapy water on the connections. If you see bubbles on the surface, gas is escaping. If you suspect a leak, shut the tank valve off and tighten all connections. Test it again with soapy water. If connections continue to leak, it’s cold baloney sandwich time. Have the grill checked out by a certified dealer before you use it again.

Here are a few more safety tips for the gas grill:

  • To light a gas grill, open the valve only a quarter to one-half turn before lighting and don’t start the grill.
  • Shut the valve off to the fuel source any time it is not in use.
  • Never start a gas grill with the lid of the grill closed. The gas may accumulate inside and, when ignited, could explode and blow the lid off.
  • Periodically clean the Venturi tubes under the grill—read the manufacturer’s instructions for that.
  • Have a BC-type fire extinguisher located in the grilling area.
  • Store propane tanks in well-ventilated area away from the house, cabin, tent, etc., and away from any source of flame.

Sleeping under the Stars

What about cooking while we’re on our summer getaway? Whether you use a charcoal grill or gas grill, follow the same rules as you do in the backyard and be sure to always clear a large area of ground for cooking or camp fires to prevent forest fires. It’s also important to follow any campground or park rules related to cooking and campfires.

Many outdoor cooks also use portable gas stoves and fryers. The rules provided above still apply, but here are few more important tips about camp stoves in particular:

  • Locate your stove in an open, well-ventilated area away from your camper, tent, or other flammable materials.
  • Secure the stove on a level, nonflammable surface.
  • Do not use the stove as a heater or leave it unattended.

If we’re camping out though, we’ve got to have a campfire, don’t we? Well, as with any other open flame, I would argue that modern man can get by without it—tradition or not. There are other ways to keep warm and other ways to eat without a campfire. However, it’s not realistic to think people will resist the prehistoric urge. So consider these suggestions for making the campground safer:

  • Secure the necessary permit and follow campground or park rules.
  • Scrape away grass, leaves, and pine needles within a 10-foot diameter—and make that area a no-kid zone just like the kitchen and other cooking areas.
  • Use a designated fire pit if available.
  • Build fire downwind of and far away from your tent or sleeping area.
  • Have water readily available for extinguishing the fire.
  • Always supervise children around a campfire.
  • Remind children of all the usual fire safety rules like stop, drop, and roll.
  • Don’t leave a fire burning when you go to sleep.
  • Extinguish the fire with lots of water to make sure the coals are cool before you consider it a safe area.

More Safe Summer Tips

We’ve only had space here to talk about outdoor cooking, but this summer keep in mind these additional tips to stay safe:

  • Drink plenty of water to avoid overheating.
  • Wear sunscreen with SPF of 15 or more, and UVA and UVB protection.
  • Leave fireworks to the experts.
  • Stay indoors when lightning is present. 
  • Learn the fire escape routes in your hotel.
  • Use flashlights, not candles, when the power goes out.
  • Don’t smoke.

No matter what you do for summer vacation, eat well and have fun. Take lots of pictures and videos, but keep it safe. If you get a chance, take time to learn more about summer safety and review the tips with your family before you go. 

All the suggestions in this article and more can be found on the American Burn Association Prevention web page at The ABA’s Prevention Committee created a comprehensive Summer and Camping Prevention kit in 2002 that is free to download.

As always, if you have a comment or question about information in this article, email me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Let’s keep talking about burn prevention.


Jimmy Parks, MS, RN, is the outreach coordinator for Arkansas Children’s Hospital Burn Center and is a member of the American Burn Association’s Burn Prevention Committee


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Summer Edition 2006. Burn Support News is a quarterly publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.
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