Summer: it’s time to break from school, relax by the pool, and sip on fresh lemonade. Everyone looks forward to it, and for a good reason. But there's a side of summer most don’t talk about — and that's the increased opportunities for burn injuries.
According to the Pew Research Center, more people visit emergency rooms on July 4th and 5th than on any other period throughout the year. The biggest reason? Fireworks. Most professional displays are managed with an eye toward safety, but firework displays at home can easily lead to burn injuries or worse.
Other possibilities for injury include burns from grilling, as well as campfires and backyard bonfire pits.
Fires can happen at any time of the year, of course, but when you're inside in the winter, there are fire alarms that can alert you to a source of danger. Outside, you may not realize there is a risk of injury or fire damage until it's too late.
That doesn't mean you need to give up on the fun of summer displays, though. Just as you want the best home security system inside your home, there are steps you can take to avoid disaster outside as well. “The best way [to avoid injury] is to prevent the burn in the first place with safety tips and precautions to eliminate potential dangers," says Steven Sandoval, MD, associate professor of surgery and medical director of the Suffolk County Volunteer Firefighters Burn Center at Stony Brook University Hospital. Here are some tips to keep in mind while you enjoy each Summer activity:
Keep your grill and smoker clean. Bits of food from last week's grilling session can easily catch fire and flare up when you light your grill. Use a wire brush to remove food and grease before you start the fire. But use caution here, too: Dr. Sandoval says that wire-bristle brushes can result in ingestion of sharp bristle pieces requiring surgery, so wipe it down with a paper towel after cleaning.
Keep the grill cover open when you're lighting it, and if it's a gas grill, make sure each element is lit and not leaking gas.
Position your grill so that it is at least 10 feet away from any structure. Never start your grill under a roof, such as in a garage or pergola. Never use your grill in your house, either. In addition to a fire risk, grills release carbon monoxide, which can be deadly.
- If you're in charge of the grill, don't wander off to take a quick dip in the pool while it's lit.
- Keep people several feet away from the grill, and avoid drinking alcohol while you're cooking.
- Have a spray bottle of water handy to spray on minor flare-ups. While it won't put out a major fire, it will quiet down minor flames without harming the food.
- If possible, keep a fire extinguisher nearby, too, or know where you can get one quickly in the event of an emergency.
Fireworks — including backyard fireworks — are an exciting part of many celebrations, although laws govern their use in many states. Some professionals, such as Dr. Sandoval, believe home fireworks should be avoided. "Fireworks are safe for viewing only when being used by professionals," he says.
If you live in a state where they are legal and are thinking of including them in your next backyard bash, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission offers suggestions to keep your gathering safe.
Keep all fireworks away from children and anyone under the age of 18. This includes sparklers, which burn at temperatures as high as 2,000 degrees. Also, never let anyone who has been drinking alcohol operate fireworks.
When lighting a fuse, don't put any part of your body directly over the firework. Move away quickly once the fuse is lit, and never light more than one firework at a time. Light them individually, and wait until they have gone off before lighting another one.
Have a bucket of water and/or a hose ready in case of a mishap. After your fireworks are finished burning, hose them down with water or immerse them in the bucket of water before you throw them in the trash.
A fire pit or campfire can be an attractive feature in your backyard landscape. A temporary one on a beach or other open area can be a great place for people to gather on a summer evening. Some basic precautions can make it a safe option as well.
Position your firepit in an open spot, at least 10 feet away from any buildings or tall plantings. Avoid placing it under a tree's overhanging branches. Make sure the ground is level and free of any dry debris or leaves.
Your choice of fuel is also a safety consideration. Your safest bet is burning seasoned firewood that has dried out and is ready to be burned. Don't use pine or other softwoods, which can spark up, and avoid using wood left over from construction projects or plywood, which may release toxic fumes into the air when burned.
"Limit the use of flammable liquids to start your fire pits and barbecues," says Dr. Sandoval. "Use only approved lighter fluids that are meant for cooking purposes. No gasoline or kerosene."
Keep people a few feet away from the fire pit, and be especially watchful of children. If you're cooking s'mores or hot dogs over the fire, assign someone to keep an eye on those who are closest to the flame.
It's a good idea to have a bucket of water handy for wood fire pits, as well as a fire extinguisher — and know beforehand how to use it. Another good precaution is a fire blanket, which can be used to extinguish a flame when necessary.
When you're ready to call it a day, douse the fire with a bucket of water or a hose if it's a wood-burning fire (unless it's a ceramic pit, which can crack when water is applied). For a gas fire pit, turn off the gas and make sure there are no flames left before going inside.
Have an escape plan ready
Out-of-control fires are becoming increasingly common in some parts of the country. What should you do if you are in the path of one? There will be official information available to you on how to handle it, but here are a few general ideas on what you can do beforehand to be prepared:
- Evacuation plan: Develop this well before you need it. Discuss with your family how to leave the house and where to go, and include your pets in your strategy.
- Family communication plan: Write down your evacuation plan, and review it regularly with your whole family, even young children.
- Designate a point of contact: Assign one spot (by a particular tree on your front lawn, for example) where everyone should meet. Practice evacuating your home every six months so that even the smallest children are comfortable with the plan.
- Prepared kit: Before fire season starts, prepare a bag or bags that can be quickly taken when necessary. These are sometimes called "bug out bags," and they should have everything you might need for a short time.
- Medicine: Include several days’ worth of medicine needed by any family members (once again, including pets).
- Family records: Keep a copy of vital documents — birth certificates, passports, and the like — in your kit.
- Change of clothes: You don't know when you'll be able to return home following a fire. Have a change of clothes in your kit in case you are absent for several days.
- Credit cards: You may need to pay for a motel room or food while you're out, so have your credit cards in a place that is easy to grab, as well as some cash.
- Stop, drop and roll: This simple phrase is designed to make it easy for everyone, including children, to know what to do if their clothes catch fire. Simply put, it means you should stop where you are and drop to the ground, covering your eyes and mouth with your hands. Roll over and back and forth until the flames are out. Even a small child can do this, and it's worth practicing with your young ones in case they are ever in need.
Staying safe while enjoying your summer doesn't have to be complicated. Using our common-sense tips will allow you to safely enjoy activities that involve fire without the risk of injury or damage. So, site that fire pit carefully, fire up the grill, use care when handling your fireworks — and remember to enjoy the warm weather and the fun it brings.