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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

New fire codes are banning grilling on apartment and condominium balconies across the country, but not everyone is  hot on the idea. By Alex Johnson.
An international fire code being adopted across America bans grilling on many apartment decks and balconies.
An international fire code being adopted across America bans grilling on many apartment decks and balconies.Jim Ray /

It’s almost the Fourth of July, so it’s time once again for the Great Barbecue Debate:

Ribs or pork?

Vinegar-based or tomato-based? Or mustard-based?

Wet or dry?

Legal or illegal?

An issue simmers
Seattle is a big outdoor grilling town. Long summer daylight hours stretching till 10 at night and cool temperatures lure legions of guys in aprons outside with beer, beef and briquettes. And the Fourth of July is the busiest grilling day of the year, according to at least 15 consecutive surveys by Weber-Stephen Products Co.

But as this Independence Day approached, Stan Price found himself being raked over the coals. He was getting grilled. You could say the fat really hit the fire.

Stan Price is chairman of the Washington State Building Code Council, which was all set to begin applying a new state fire code. Except someone noticed a provision that would, beginning July 1, prohibit the use of liquefied petroleum gas burners and other open-flame cooking devices on combustible balconies or within 10 feet of combustible construction except in one- and two-family dwellings or in buildings where the balcony and deck are protected with fire sprinklers.

Translation: No more grilling on most apartment and condominium balconies and decks.

Three days before the Fourth of July. Cue the fireworks.

Newspapers dubbed it the “balcony barbecue ban.” As any self-respecting Texan or North Carolinian will tell you, grilling and barbecuing are definitely not the same thing, but never mind.

“Building code council feeling burned over barbecue ban,” read one headline.

“Stick a fork in it: Grilling is done,” read another.

“New code douses deck barbecues,” went one more.

Smoked out by the balcony grillers, the building council backed down. It passed an emergency amendment June 11 to delay the change, pending public hearings.

What’s all the big fuss?
The ban wasn’t even the building council’s idea. It’s part of a fire code written by the International Code Council, which develops model regulations for the construction of commercial and residential buildings. All or parts of 32 states have already adopted the code, according to a database compiled by the international council, and the process is well under way before state and local councils in many of the rest.

The International Fire Code was revised last year to include the apartment grilling ban. The Washington council, under orders from the state Legislature to revise construction codes to refer to modern model regulations, duly adopted it with little fanfare.

Then came the press attention.

“We did hear strong views expressed on both sides,” Price said in an interview. “There were people who felt strongly that this was an invasion of personal liberty, and there were others who felt that this was good protection.”

Here’s the funny part: The brouhaha shouldn’t have happened. The new code doesn’t change all that much.

True, the old state code, which was based on the 1997 Uniform Fire Code, did not ban apartment balcony grilling. But it explicitly pointed local fire marshals and fire chiefs to a set of national standards that included the ban almost word for word.

So while balcony grilling wasn’t already prohibited statewide, local fire officials were “very strongly” encouraged to outlaw it in their jurisdictions anyway as a matter of state policy, Tim Nogler, managing director of the Washington building council, said in an interview. The Seattle Fire Department, in fact, said it presumed balcony grilling was illegal all along.

If anything, it would let more people grill than before. The new code includes an exemption allowing grilling if you have an overhead sprinkler. The old standard didn’t.

Nobody knew that, however, until the state building council acted to enforce the ban statewide.

“Obviously, this was something that, once it shows up in the media, people become aware of it,” Price said. “Not many people read the International Fire Code.”

Not worth the effort
So the Washington uproar was unusual. Normally, no one outside the construction and law enforcement worlds pays much attention to this sort of thing.

One man who did was Kip Tyner, a member of the City Council in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

When the council considered adopting the International Fire Code in January, Tyner, the chairman of its Public Safety Committee, said it was a bad idea. “People thought it was too much government,” he said in an interview.

“We’ve got the University of Alabama here, we’ve got a predominantly black college here [Stillman College], a very large community college,” Tyner said. “There are a lot of students who do a lot of grilling. Some of them, that’s the only meal they have — they can’t grill, they don’t eat.”

The City Council adopted the new code, but Tyner wasn’t through. After fighting the ban for weeks, he introduced an amendment to repeal it and won. But then it was pointed out that the statewide fire code included it anyway, so Tyner gave up. Besides, many insurance companies say they won’t insure buildings otherwise.

In the end, he said, “it was just not worth the effort.”

Backyard cops on the beat
In any event, the barbecue industry says, the ban is unenforceable. Police and fire marshals have more important things to do than sniff around people’s balconies for bootleg brisket and renegade ribs.

“Are you going to have the backyard police or the apartment terrace police?” asked Donna Myers, the barbecue spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. She is Miss Barbecue.

Officially, the association has no stance on fire codes that ban grilling close to wood structures.


Unofficially, of course, “since I’m in the barbecue industry, no, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Myers said in an interview.

“These rules are so ridiculous,” she said. “... I guess I look at it like a warning on a hair dryer that says don’t use it in the bathtub. You have to ask yourself: ‘Who uses a hair dryer in the bathtub?’ It’s inconceivable.”

Myers said regulators were singling out barbecues because of a small number of highly publicized fires, which are usually the result of human error, anyway.

“It would be like trying to regulate how often someone can broil or fry or do something else,” she said. “How do you regulate it?”

The good old days?
In fact, fires related to outdoor grilling are not that rare, and they take a heavy toll.

Each year, outside cooking grills cause more than 6,000 fires, kill five people (and injure more than 170 others) and destroy about $35 million in property, according to records compiled by the National Fire Data Center of the U.S. Fire Administration.

Already this year, windblown embers from a barbecue on a third-floor balcony sparked a fire at a condominium complex in Carol Stream, Ill., on April 3. The residents had to be evacuated, and firefighters had to rip out drywall and part of the ceiling to bring it under control.

Just two weeks later, dozens of residents were left homeless when a fire blamed on a barbecue grill on a balcony caused heavy damage to an apartment building in Virginia Beach. A similar fire destroyed a building there seven years ago.

That’s why opponents of the grilling ban are losing ground. Before long, apartment and condo dwellers may well look back on holiday barbecues on the deck as a quaint tradition of the past — just one more advantage of single-family homeownership.

Nogler, the manager director of the Washington building council, emphasized that he wasn’t speaking for the members of his council, but he said it was clear that the International Code Council spent years working on the model code and thought it was important.

“This is a major fire safety issue,” he said.