By Lisa Fernandez – Mercury News
David Farren loves to unwind by barbecuing on his third-story Campbell apartment balcony. Rib-eye steaks. Teriyaki chicken. Beef rubbed with olive oil and rosemary.
But this age-old rite of outdoor cooking is under attack.
This summer will be California’s first when it’s against the law to grill on many wooden apartment or condominium balconies.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Farren, who learned about the new rule when a flier from the Santa Clara County Fire Department landed on his doorstep recently. “I don’t really know how to cook meat in a stove. I can’t cook my rib-eye steak in a frying pan. It just doesn’t work for me.”
Following similar codes already adopted elsewhere in the nation, the barbecue ban went into effect Jan. 1 across California in a sweeping effort to prevent fires. The National Fire Protection Association reports that barbecues sparked 8,300 fires nationwide in 2005, causing $137 million in property damage.
So for Farren, a facilities manager at a company that makes military tanks, it’s: Break the law, shelve his two Weber grills or move.
It’s not as if all barbecuing is off-limits. Grilling with charcoal and natural gas are still OK on apartment decks with automatic sprinklers. Grilling with propane is OK if tanks are tiny, fit for camping. All grilling is OK if apartment balconies are made of non-combustible materials such as stucco, concrete or brick. And the new rules don’t affect single-family homes and duplexes.
If someone’s barbecue torches a typical home, the damage is usually limited to that property, said Santa Clara County Fire Department Deputy Chief Dirk Mattern. But if that same fire breaks out in an apartment building, lots of people are endangered.
On May 3, for example, firefighters rushed to stamp out a three-alarm blaze in Sunnyvale that began with a barbecue on a second-floor balcony. The fire damaged all 18 units in the Morse Avenue apartment building.
While the barbecuing codes have been in effect for five months, enforcing them is just now heating up, as Memorial Day launched the nation into high-gear barbecue season. About a month ago, Santa Clara County firefighters began alerting landlords about the new rules. Tenants like Farren started complaining.
Every three years, California cities update their building and fire safety codes. This year, California’s Building Standards Commission decided for the first time to adopt most of the rules in what’s called the International Fire Code. But the state let individual cities weigh in on the open-flame grills.
Every city in Santa Clara County decided to adopt the more stringent barbecue codes. The two sections are buried in the minutia of thick new code books. Many building code inspectors and city code enforcers still didn’t know about the new law until the Mercury News or Santa Clara County firefighters recently told them.
Mattern said his department launched a “low-key” public awareness campaign in Campbell first, as the city of nearly 40,000 residents is rich in high-density apartments.
“We know this is going to be a big deal for a lot of folks,” Mattern said. “And so far, we’ve had mixed reactions. But some of the landlords are loving it. They know their tenants will want to barbecue, so they’ve actually developed a little barbecue area for everyone to share.”
Authorities acknowledge that enforcing the barbecue ban is not going to be a top priority. They certainly won’t dress up in “BBQ police” T-shirts on weekends, and go sniffing for the scent of grilled meats wafting from high-rises.
But if a neighbor complains, and firefighters show up, there are penalties they can dole out.
While a first offense will lead to little more than a lecture, the fourth visit to the same address could lead to a $500 fine. And in extreme cases, the belligerent barbecuer could face misdemeanor criminal charges.
Kirsten Carr, spokeswoman for the California Apartment Association, Tri-County division, first heard about the new ban from a Campbell landlord. She’s hosting a meeting on Tuesday so that fire experts can explain the codes to some of the 2,000 landlords and property managers her organization represents in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties.
Carr hopes her members will brainstorm safe and legal barbecue options. Maybe they could update their building materials, add sprinklers or come up with creative grilling ideas. Outside electric ovens are still deemed fine to use.
“Our first concern is having our residents be safe,” Carr said. “But we want to see if there is something we can do so that our apartment community can still enjoy the amenities of backyard living.”
But there undoubtedly will be grillers such as Farren – and his downstairs neighbor with a fancy smoker – who have a different attitude: defiance.
“I’m not surrendering my barbecue,” he said. “Let them fine me. They’re going to have to break my door down to get it.”