Burn Featured Injury Prevention

After spike in injuries from barbecues and bonfires, burn experts urge caution

While Sunnybrook treats many people with severe burns caused by common summertime activities every year, there has been a recent spike in admissions because of injuries caused by barbecues and bonfires.

“In the first three weeks of June alone, we’ve already admitted six patients who were seriously injured in incidents with bonfires and barbecues,” says Dr. Marc Jeschke, medical director of Sunnybrook’s Ross Tilley Burn Centre (RTBC), the largest adult burn centre in Canada.

Almost all of those cases involved accelerant, alcohol or a combination of the two.

Here, he offers several tips to keep you safe and away from the emergency room this summer:

Don’t drink and light a barbecue or bonfire

“If you’ve had too many drinks to drive, you should not be using a barbecue,” says Dr. Jeschke. The same goes for bonfires. Already in May and June, the RTBC has seen several cases where patients were injured by bonfires and alcohol was involved.

Dr. Jeschke says many of the injuries they see in the burn centre are the result of poor judgment.

“Maybe someone’s decision-making ability was impaired by drugs or alcohol, or they didn’t stop to think about the potentially dangerous consequences of a situation,” he says.

“Don’t be that person.”

Don’t use accelerants on fires and barbecues

With COVID-19 restrictions in place, more people are preparing meals at home or cleaning up brush and other debris on their properties.

Since April, the RTBC has admitted five patients who were seriously injured after using accelerants (such as gasoline) on bonfires and barbecues.

“Do not pour gasoline or another igniter fluid onto a fire that’s already burning, like a bonfire. The fire can come right back up into the container you’re holding, which will then explode,” he says.

The person holding the container may also react by throwing it, inadvertently spraying other people nearby with burning fuel.

Keep a source of water nearby

If you’re going to have a bonfire, barbecue or use a fire pit, make sure you have a source of water nearby, whether it’s a garden hose on standby or a bucket of water, before starting the fire. When a fire gets out of control or a person is burned, every second counts.

“With fires, you should always remember safety, and know where the closest water supply is,” says Dr. Jeschke.

Get rid of your ethanol-fueled fire pot

Ethanol-fueled fire pots are often more decorative in nature, set on tabletops or in small bowls or pots, but don’t let that fool you: they are dangerous because they use highly flammable fuels, like butane and ethanol. In fact, Health Canada issued a consumer warning last year and asked manufacturers to stop selling these products.

“Explosions can happen when you try to re-light the fire, because there can still be fumes or low flames that can ignite during the refuelling process,” says Anne Hayward, a social worker at the RTBC.

Last year, the RTBC admitted four patients who were injured by ethanol-fueled fire pits. Unfortunately, one of those patients passed away from their injuries.

The burn centre hasn’t had any admissions yet in 2020 from ethanol-fueled fire pots, and they hope it stays that way.

“We’ve seen way too many people injured while refueling ethanol fire pots. It can happen to anyone. They are dangerous, and they can be deadly,” says Dr. Jeschke.

Read Anna's story to learn more about the dangers of ethanol-fueled fire pots

Don’t wear loose clothing around open flames

 Keep some simple safety tips in mind while gathered around a fire pit or barbecuing, such as not wearing loose, flowing clothing.

“With loose clothing, you turn around quickly or get too close, and the fire ignites the clothes. You then have a major injury for no reason whatsoever,” says Dr. Jeschke.

What to do if someone is burned

If you or someone you’re with does get a burn, the best initial treatment is cold, running water.

“Don’t soak the injured area, just let the water run over it,” says Dr. Jeschke.

If it’s a significant burn, call 911 to get to the nearest hospital. Do not attempt to use homemade remedies on the burn, such as butter, vinegar, oil or lemon.

About the author

Sybil Millar

Sybil Millar

Sybil Millar is the Communications Advisor for Infection Prevention and Control, Infectious Diseases, the Ross Tilley Burn Centre and the Critical Care program at Sunnybrook.

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