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Detroit bans grilling on front porches, under roof

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city is dousing a summertime tradition of barbecuing on front porches in an effort to prevent accidental residential fires.

The Detroit City Council recently amended its outdoor fire code to prohibit “outdoor cooking” under a roof or enclosed area, which would include a front porch where officials say too many grills are being lit.

Fire officials say barbecuing on porches has caused porch ceilings to catch fire, and also note a Detroit family was killed by a grill fire 10 years ago.

It often starts with a grill tipping over or flames flaring up too close to a residence, Detroit Deputy Fire Commissioner Dave Fornell said.

“The whole idea is to keep it away from the house itself,” Fornell said. “It may be a little inconvenient for some ... but it does make things much more safer.”

The City Council unanimously approved the ordinance May 16.

Fornell said the fire department will enforce the new rule by sending fire inspectors out to neighborhoods when residents complain.

Anyone who violates the ordinance will likely receive a warning the first time, Fornell said. Residents could be ticketed and forced to pay a fine for further violations. A judge would determine the fine amount, he added.

The ordinance states grills, or outdoor cooking devices, are permitted only in the side yard or backyard of a home and must be at least 10 feet from a property line or fixed flammable object.

Residents say they lobbied for the city to ban front porch grilling because it disrupts neighborhoods.

Cynthia Lowe, who lives on Thornton on the city’s west side, said her previous neighbors regularly hosted front porch cookouts and allowed paper plates and trash to blow into other yards.

When that family moved out, squatters used the house. Lowe recalled once watching the squatters struggle to light a grill that was left on the front porch.

“It’s unsafe, unhealthy and very disrespectful,” Lowe said.

Lowe said she was relieved when the city amended its open fire ordinance because it helps keep neighborhoods clean.

“This was such a blessing to us because it doesn’t sound like a serious issue, but it is,” Lowe said. “If you notice in Detroit how close our houses are to each other.”

In May 2007, a pregnant mom and three children were killed in a blaze that fire officials say was caused by a barbecue grill on a porch. The charcoal reportedly spilled onto the porch while the family was grilling at their home on the 8700 block of Lane on the southwest side, Fornell said.

But not all residents favor the tougher stance on grilling. Resident Illene Franks said the new measure seemed aggressive.

Franks said she grew up grilling in the backyard but younger families are starting to host their cookouts and celebrations in the front yard.

“If that’s the way you like to do your (grilling), that’s fine,” Franks said. “You shouldn’t be made to (go to the backyard).”

Councilman Gabe Leland said he began pushing for the ordinance last year after hearing complaints from several residents.

“We want to make sure that residents are practicing safe uses with open fire,” Leland said. “And we also know that we are doing everything we can to limit fires on our residential and commercial properties.”

Nine percent of structure fires in Detroit were found to be accidental last summer, Fornell said.

Detroit is the only major city in Michigan that has specifically banned front porch grilling in its fire code. Other cities, such as Warren, have ordinances that require grills to be at least 15 feet away from a structure. Warren Fire Chief Skip McAdams said the fire department there makes exceptions for residents with smaller yards.

Nationally, fire departments respond to an average of 7,700 house fires each year involving grills, hibachi and barbecues, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

State Farm Insurance said it processes an average of 3,000 fire- and smoke-related claims each year in July, the peak month for grill fires.

In July 2013, the state issued a list of grilling tips advising people to grill on a level surface at least 10 feet away from a house, garage, deck, overhanging leaves, branches, hanging baskets and backyard furniture.

“Periodically, communities across Michigan adopt newer versions of fire codes to meet the needs of their community,” Jeannie Vogel, a spokeswoman for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, said in an email. “The issue of banning grilling on front porches is a local issue left best to local communities to adopt ordinances and enforce those ordinances.”

According to State Farm, a homeowner’s insurance policy would generally cover a fire started by a grill. However, the company makes its decision based on the results of the investigation. State Farm would also decide on a case-by-case basis whether home insurance rates would go up following the fire, spokeswoman Holly Anderson said.

Marilyn Winfrey, who lives on the city’s northwest side, said she is pleased with the revised open fire law.

Winfrey, 75, said her neighbor’s front porch awning started to melt from lighting the grill so often.

“Once you have fires then that brings down your neighborhoods,” Winfrey said. “Because then you have a house that may or may not get fixed (after the fire).”

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Twitter: @NicquelTerry