#291 – How the California Fire Code of 2019 May Affect Your Grilling Plans in 2020

Outdoor grilling means good eating—but California’s concerns about the environment and fire safety have led lawmakers to enact controversial rules

Fires caused by barbecue grills are not unique to California, but the Golden State has seen some major fires with grills as the point of origin. And when they happen in apartment complexes, the potential for property damage, disruption of housing, and injury or death is severe:

  • A 2012 fire in Hayward, California—not far from San Francisco—left nine people temporarily without a home and caused over $100,000 in damage. A mother left the grill unattended while watching her children, and the fire got out of control, according to a fire official.
  • A San Diego, California apartment building was severely damaged and a family’s cat killed just two years ago. A witness reported that a gas grill on a second-story porch exploded.
  • Another propane explosion related to BBQ grilling, this time in Aurora, Colorado, displaced 30 people when the tank “exploded and set the roof on fire,” according to fire officials.

Roughly seven in 10 American households have at least one grill (or outdoor, open-flame cooking device). And the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that more than 10,000 grill fires start in homes every year—with most incidents peaking in July. So, how have recent editions of the California Fire Code tried to tackle this problem in 2018 and 2019—and what does it mean for grilling in 2020?

For those retrofitting apartment buildings to be a little more grill-friendly—or others readying themselves for safe outdoor cooking—our residential fire sprinklers, sprinkler components and accessories, and fire extinguishers may come in handy.

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The California Fire Code of 2016 restricted the use of BBQ grills in 2018, and the new 2019 edition impacts apartment dwellers in 2020

In apartment buildings, including condominiums and townhouses, fires in one unit can quickly spread to another. As a result, the California Fire Code—in section 308.1.4 on “Open-flame cooking devices”—restricts what kind of grilling is allowed in or near them. Both the 2016 and the 2019 versions of the code have the same restrictions, with the latter edition taking effect in 2020.

The 2019 California Fire Code restricts BBQ grill use—and the use of any open-flame cooking device—in the following ways:

  • Open-flame cooking devices can’t be operated on “combustible balconies.” Wooden decks and similar structures can easily catch and spread fire, making them risky places to operate a BBQ grill.
  • At least 10 feet of clearance is required between active grills and “combustible construction.” Many apartment balconies or porches are very small, so getting more than 10 feet away from a wall clad in wood or vinyl siding is often impossible.
  • The 2016 and 2019 versions of California Fire Code do allow grilling in “one- and two-family dwellings,” as well as structures “where buildings, balconies and decks are protected by an automatic sprinkler system.”
  • One type of open-flame device is acceptable around combustible construction or balconies: propane (“LP-gas”) grills with especially small tanks. Those tanks may have a “water capacity” no greater than 2 1/2 pounds. The water capacity measures how much water, in pounds, the container could hold. But, in short, these tanks are of the small, portable variety used with camping gear.
LP gas tanks
The tiny tank on the right might be acceptable—but even the small tank on the left is too large under the California Fire Code. Source: MotoCampers

To sum up: sprinklered balconies in apartment buildings, along with single-family dwellings and duplexes, appear to be exempted from California Fire Code’s BBQ grill rules (both under the 2016 and 2019 editions). However, local governments or lease agreements may not allow grilling even when state code permits it—and some common interpretations of these rules are even more restrictive.

California began to restrict outdoor grilling as early as the 1990s for environmental and fire safety reasons

In October of 1990, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD)—an agency tasked with managing air pollution in one of the most densely-populated regions of California (and the United States)—outlawed the sale of charcoal lighter fluid. The ban also took charcoal soaked with lighter fluid (or similar accelerants) off the shelves.

These restrictions didn’t directly tackle the use of gas grills, electric grills, or other outdoor cooking devices. Nor did they ultimately stop consumers from buying lighter fluid: later, the AQMD adopted a rule allowing retailers to sell reformulated versions. But the rules did give a preview of the heated debates to follow.

In January of 2008, California passed laws limiting or eliminating outdoor grilling on apartment balconies and porches. According to an article from the Bay Area-based Mercury News, these new rules left many apartment dwellers frustrated. Faced with modest penalties (a warning for first-time offenders and a $500 fine or misdemeanor charges later), some rebelled: “Let them fine me,” said a resident interviewed by the Mercury News. “They’re going to have to break my door down to get [my grill].”

It’s unclear how often the law is enforced. When the ban first passed, officials explained that it’s up to neighbors to complain—and left to firefighters to issue citations. And years later, the residents of cities like Laguna Woods have balked at efforts to apply those restrictions. But with the backing of fire officials and leading safety organizations like the NFPA, cities as varied as Seattle and New York have placed tighter restrictions on grill use.

Hayward CA apartment fire
This charred townhouse embodies the worries driving grill bans: an unattended grill displaced nine people in Hayward, California. Source: CBS SF BayArea

To keep cooking, Californians must adapt their buildings and/or their choice of grilling equipment

Cities—and not the state of California itself—give the force of law to the California Fire Codes. But that’s not saying much: state law only allows cities to make state laws stricter, or to modify codes “to address a local geologic, topographic, or climatic condition.” The statewide grilling rules discussed earlier are the bare minimum. Local laws may be even more restrictive.

As such, anyone living in an apartment should consult their landlord and authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) before grilling. That AHJ may be local building code authorities, fire departments, or other organizations tasked with interpreting and enforcing fire code.

California Fire Code appears to have relaxed slightly on the subject of larger gas-powered grills. The 2007 edition didn’t even permit them to be stored on combustible balconies or near combustible construction—whether or not fire sprinklers are installed. Later editions seem to treat them just like charcoal grills, however, prohibiting only their use near unprotected combustible construction.

That said, some jurisdictions may still prohibit both the storage and use of larger gas grills in these circumstances. And additional rules may prohibit transporting larger propane containers through most stairways, making the use of gas grills impossible above ground-level.

Electric grills don’t qualify as an open-flame device and, as such, are acceptable under these rules. But that doesn’t mean that no regulations (or commonsense practices) apply. Users should make sure that extension cords are rated for the amperage being drawn and suitable for outdoor use. Fire officials also recommend using only equipment that’s listed—meaning certified and tested—and properly installed.

Grill safely wherever you are with some commonsense precautions

Grill somewhere else if you can’t grill safely and legally on your balcony

For those who love to grill—and are shopping for an apartment complex—look for a home that provides an outdoor common area suitable for grilling and entertaining. If designed properly, this satisfies the requirements of the California Fire Code and allows the use of any accepted type of BBQ grill. Public parks may also provide grilling areas. When using shared equipment, make sure grilling surfaces are clean and check on the condition of gas tanks and lines before use.

Safe residential grill
This apartment complex provides a safe location and a high-end gas grill. Source: NFPA

Grilling equipment, apartment-friendly or not, is not without risks

As mentioned in some of the stories above, tank explosions and gas leaks can occur with any size or type of LP-gas system. Always use gas grills in areas with plenty of ventilation, and test grills for leaks at least once per season. Don’t forget to take refillable tanks to a certified professional for refills. While refillable 1 lb. tanks do exist, many are DOT 39 cylinders. These are designed for one use only and should never be refilled, as the video below explains:

Charcoal grills also require care in handling. Use only approved types of lighter fluid and never spray it on an existing fire—this will cause a dangerous flare-up. NFPA adds that charcoal should be left in the grill until “completely cool,” and that debris should be placed in a metal container.

Electric grills are not designed to be an “open-flame cooking device,” which is why they’re often permitted in situations where other grills aren’t, but that doesn’t mean they can’t start a grease fire like any other cooking surface. As mentioned earlier, make sure extension cords are outdoor-grade and rated for the amperage being drawn by the grill. Watch the grill whenever it’s in operation.

Electric grill fire
Regular cleanings are essential, even for “safe” electric grills. This one caught fire when the grease from some hamburgers reached ignition temperature. Source: Reddit

Keep fire safety equipment handy when grilling

As with all cooking operations, fire safety should be top-of-mind when grilling. In many cases, simply closing the lid can starve a barbecue fire of oxygen. Additionally, keeping fire extinguishers close by could make the difference between a ruined dinner and a real disaster. Be sure to understand the different types of fire extinguishers available for different kinds of fires. A dry chemical ABC fire extinguisher works well against some flammable liquids, as well as fires in solid materials and electrical equipment. Be aware, though, that they will not be effective for fires involving deep grease. For those fires, a wet chemical (Class K) extinguisher is needed. Fire blankets are also an option for fighting grease fires or smothering flames on someone’s clothing.

Buy fire extinguisher
A 5 lb. dry chemical ABC fire extinguisher may be more than enough to tackle some out-of-control grill fires.

Grilling is more restricted than it used to be, but you can still do it legally and safely in many cases

Since 2008, the California Fire Code has greatly restricted the use of BBQ grills, and those restrictions have remained much the same in the edition taking effect in 2020. While many people understandably chafe against these rules, the risk to life and property from grilling on apartment balconies is real.

Municipal laws, local AHJs, and apartment managers may embrace more restrictive rules. Those who live in apartments may have few grilling choices—if they are allowed to grill at all. Further, older buildings with combustible balconies and outer walls that lack sprinkler systems don’t leave residents with many options. Grilling in an apartment complex common area or at a park may be the safest option.

If you’re a property manager considering residential fire sprinkler systems—whether for new construction, retrofit, or maintenance of existing systems—QRFS has the parts and installation tools you need.

If you’re a weekend griller looking to grill safely, take a look at our ABC dry chemical extinguishers, which can safely stop many grill fires. QRFS also carries wet chemical, 1-A: K-rated extinguishers. They’re worth a look for those engaged in fryer/deep grease cooking, as are our fire blankets. To order either of these items, call us at +1 (888) 361-6662 or email support@qrfs.com.

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This blog was originally posted at blog.qrfs.com. If this article helped you understand the 2019 and 2020 California Fire Code for BBQ grills, check us out at Facebook.com/QuickResponseFireSupply or on Twitter @QuickResponseFS



27 thoughts on “#291 – How the California Fire Code of 2019 May Affect Your Grilling Plans in 2020”

  1. is it true all new construction, specifically residential home require fire sprinkler systems? How about a new A.D.U.? Also known as an accessory dwelling unit. Does the law require new modular homes fire sprinklers?

    • Requirements for residential fire sprinklers systems vary by state and municipality. For California specifically, all new single-family residences or duplexes built on or after January 1, 2011 are required to have fire sprinklers. You can read more about state by state requirements at the Nation Fire Protection Association’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative.

  2. If you have a barbecue grill that uses propane, but haven’t used it in a long time and have it covered, can you keep it on the balcony? I’m being told I have to get rid of it by my apartment manager and I don’t feel that’s fair. All of a sudden they’re enforcing this law. I haven’t used it and don’t plan on using it until I get my house but I don’t want to get rid of it because i’m being told to.

  3. I live in a condo. My unit is two story. My balcony is off my living room in an open OUTSIDE area 10 feet wide by 30 feet.
    If I buy a propane barbecue can I have it on my balcony? The outside walls are stucco.

    I live in Laguna Niguel.

    • Coni — Stucco is typically a non-combustible siding material but it will also depend on what the balcony is made of (whether that is combustible), whether you can get at least 10′ of clearance from the wall, and the size of the propane tank (very small; a “water capacity” no greater than 2 1/2 pounds). Check with your landlord about the nature of the balcony and please call your local fire department for their interpretation of the laws to evaluate. Thanks.

  4. I would like to know if a charcoal barbecue grill can be used on the side of two houses.
    When my neighbor barbecues she does it between the side of her house and mine. All the smoke goes into my living room, kitchen and dining room..
    I already asked her to please move it into her backyard. She doesn’t seem to care…IRS hot in summer I want to keep my windows open but I don’t know when she is barbecuing…
    I have asthma and the fumes are too much for my health…she has used her grill 3 times within a month…I need some help…

    • Dalia – Please check with your local code enforcement authorities if the information is not present in the piece above. Best of luck.

  5. Hi! Thanks for the great info. What about placing a propane grill and a small gas decorative firepit on a rooftop patio? The walls are stucco and of course it is well ventilated because there is no roof above. Are there any special requirements? It can get pretty hot in the summer, is it safe to have the propane tanks out in the sun?

    • Rafael — Thanks for the kind words. For code questions like this, we recommend you contact your local fire department, as they will likely be the ones enforcing the code! Happy grilling!

  6. Hello. I live in a condo in St. Louis, MO. and received a new ordinance banning “Open Flame” gas or charcoal grills on decks or patios of all 8 family buildings.
    I am on the ground level and have an LP enclosed flame smoker.
    I would be able to move the smoker 10 feet away from the building if needed, but I’m not sure I can operate the smoker with a 2.5 gallon propane tank. Has anyone had experience with this type of situation? Thanks!

    • Ric — We have not had experience, nor are we up on codes specific to St. Louis. We’d suggest contacting your local fire department or codes department for their take on the matter. Best of luck!

  7. Hi, I live Torrance CA in building complex by the ground floor. My Patio doesn’t have roof or anything else above.

    I know I can not have Charcoal Grill on it. My question is: Can I have Traeger “Pallets” grill? Because it isn’t (open flame) Grill and it is electric or normal propane Grill? Tks

    • Carlos — We’d have to research and evaluate the features of that specific model and our judgment/opinion wouldn’t ensure that you are compliant with CA (or any local) regulations. Your best bet is to call your local fire department or fire marshal and run the situation by them for a more definitive ruling. Best of luck!

  8. I am curious about the restriction of transporting more than 2.5lb containers of propane through stairways, living units and common areas. This limitation comes from the NFPA which rules are adopted in whole by California. The questions of interest for me. Has anyone every heard of a fire starting because someone transported a standard 20lb propane tank up an elevator, up an enclosed stairway or through a residence? This restriction seems like utter nonsense. Indeed, in my experience those small containers are more poorly made and more likely to leak than the 20 lb refillable tanks that are inspected every time they are refilled. Also, has anyone discussed the violation of such provision with their fire insurance provider? It would be pretty bad to have a fire that is not covered by insurance cause I carried a propane tank through my unit. Finally, has anyone heard of this rule being enforced?

    • Kerry — If the rile exists, it has likely been enforced. Regarding your other points, if you’d like the perspective of a fire protection AHJ, you can try our Ask a Fire Pro service. Click the link to submit your questions, and a fire protection professional will provide an answer based on best practices, standards, and codes. Our pros include AHJs, contractors, engineers, and code experts with 150+ years of combined experience!

  9. Hello, I am renting a small apartment in Culver City, where the lots are small and crowded. Our immediate neighbors use a large smoker which emits smell, smoke, and fumes at all hours of the day and night. The smoke and fumes choke us out next door, forcing us to close all windows just to breathe. What are the laws concerning causing smoke and/or carbon monoxide fumes from neighbor’s barbeque?

    • Tommy — We are not aware of the laws regarding smoke fumes from a neighbor’s barbecue in your area. Your best bet is to contact your local government and inquire what laws may apply. Best of luck!

  10. Unfortunately the insurance industry and most all HOA management companies are misreading and arbitrarily and capreciously enforcing incorrectly the regulations regarding the use of Approved Outdoor Gas Cooking Devices as exempted under section 308.1(a) Exemtion (1).
    Approved Outdoor Gas Cooking Appliance that meet ANSI Z21.58 or CSA 1.6 are exempt from the “Open Flame” definition as defined in Section 308 of Title 24 of the California Code of Regulations. Do your homework and learn to read the laws as published by the Office of Administrative Law and enfornce them properly and not the current arbitrary and caprecious manner in which the insurance indusrty is threatening their insured with cancellation if they don’t comply with theuir misguided and misreading anf misinterpretation of the Califormnia Regulations. The bahavior of the insurance industry in this manner is in BAD FAITH and the insurance industry needs to be taken to court over their conduct regarding this regulation. Additionally the Inscurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshall should be the ones determing the interpretation of this regulation so that it is properly applied and not bny the insurance indusrtry that apparently does not know how to read the law!
    I have spent 32 years in California Code enforcement and know how to read the law and I know this regulation is being misread and improperly enforced!

  11. Hello Sales ,
    Many greetings from Jammermill Enterprises Inc. We would like to purchase some items from your facility to Bermuda .

    What form of payment do you accept for payment and I would also like to know if you allow private freight forwarders to pick-up the items I intend to purchase?

    Best Regards


    Jammer mill Enterprises Inc.
    34 Kings Point Road
    Sandys MA02 Bermuda

  12. We got a letter from the HOA stating “ Charcoal barbecues, outdoor fire pits, or propane grills may not be used or stored on combustible balconies, under combustible balconies, or within 10 feet of any combustible surface, including combustible fencing (per California Fire Codes 308.3.1, 308.1.4, and 308.3.1.1, adopted by the State of California in 2007). Grilling is not permitted on the asphalt or common area landscaping.
    This policy prevents outdoor grilling in the community.”

    We are condos with no balconies, siding is stucco and approximately 20 ft to the fence. The condos are each two stories, 4 connected in a row. Is there a way to fight this?

    • Courtney — You can evaluate the latest versions of the fire code and determine if there are any conflicts — or verify with your local fire department whether the HOA is overstating the rules. Best of luck.

  13. I live in Chino Ca, and have a natural gas line hook up approximately 8′ from my home, and about 2′ from slump stone fence with about another 3′ of property on the other side of the fence. Am I able to have a built in natural gas barbecue?

    • Debra — We aren’t well-versed in grilling/fire protection ordinances in local parks (vs. homes). You can contact your local park authorities or fire department—they’ll know! Thanks for reading.


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