Thursday, September 21, 2006

Wildfires and Backyard Cooking

What do these fires mean to outdoor cooks?

Plenty! Much of the Western United States is prone to wildfires. Fire restrictions crimp our collective cooking style, especially to those enjoy cooking over hot coals.

By July each year, campfires and charcoal fires have been banned in most national forests and other public lands. Cooking fuels is limited to gasoline and propane stoves, except in established campgrounds.

And although I haven’t seen any backyard restrictions against using charcoal fires, the weather of late summer does present a serious concern to the outdoor cook. Fire conditions prompt local fire officials to ban dooryard burning by mid-June each year. These restrictions are not usually lifted until the first rain of late fall.

Dooryard, or the burning of yard waste, restrictions don’t stop or limit outdoor charcoal cooking per se. But they do encourage the outdoor cook to carefully consider the ramifications of torching the neighbor’s house. (Steve’s version of Murphy’s Laws says that the neighbors will always burn first!)

I personally reconsider the use of charcoal during hot, dry windy conditions. Any use of charcoal that spits and sputters is out. Lump mesquite is especially hazardous because it showers sparks -- sparks that ignite fires.

Here are my personal guidelines for late-summer outdoor cooking:

  • Don’t burn charcoal or firewood when hot, dry windy conditions exist. These conditions are akin to the Santa Ana of Southern California. Restrict your outdoor cooking to gas or cook indoors.
  • Keep a charged hose with a spray nozzle nearby when you’re burning a charcoal fire. Ready access to water is essential to quickly drown escaping embers.
  • Put the coals out -- dead out -- after you’re done cooking. It’s best to drown the coals in an iron bucket of water.
  • Use your head. Don’t cook with fire in extreme conditions. Consult the local fire department if you’re in doubt.

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