Nothing says the return of warm weather like the smell of hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken and Italian sausages sizzling on an outdoor grill. Americans are insatiable grillers, cooking 3 billion meals each year.

With so many grills cooking in American yards, it’s no wonder grilling accidents are common. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there are more than 8,800 home fires each year due to accidents and careless grilling. In 2012, 16,900 people were taken to emergency rooms with injuries involving grills.

“A lot of the safety issues aren’t dependent on the grill itself, it’s dependent on the griller or consumer,” said John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL, who has tested grills. “Cooks have to know what they’re doing.”

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Preparing your grill

Whether you have a propane or charcoal grill, inspect and clean it before you cook for the season, says Drengenberg.

First, peek to make sure there are no mice or birds inside the unit — yes, it can happen. Brush out any charcoal or grill residue left from the last time you cooked, and wash the grill down to remove old grease. Make sure the drip tray is clean, or buy a new one if you need to.

Ready to fire it up? Make sure it’s at least 10 feet away from your house or any combustible material. Also keep it away from tree branches and yard debris. NFPA data shows one of every six home structure fires started because the grill was too close to the house or debris.

It should go without saying, but no matter how lousy the weather outside, never use a grill indoors due to the risk of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning, Drengenberg adds.

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Cooking on a propane grill

Check the tank for leaks by putting a mixture of water and soap on the connection hose and where the coupling attaches to the propane tank. Be sure the connection is very snug. If there’s a leak, you’ll see bubbles form, he says. Have a professional fix the leak before using it.

Store your propane tank away from the grill and out of direct sunlight. When igniting the propane, open the grill cover completely, turn on the burner and use the electronic ignition switch to ignite the gas. If you close the lid and then try to light it, you run a risk of a propane explosion.

If you smell gas when cooking, step away from the grill and call the fire department. Don’t move the grill, the NFPA advises.

While it can be a challenge, never leave the grill unattended, especially with children and pets around, Drengenberg warns.

Cooking on a charcoal grill

Charcoal won't explode as propane can, but there's another risk: lighter fluid, which many backyard chefs rely to get the coals burning. Lighter fluid should be added to the charcoals before you try to ignite them, Drengenberg says. Never add lighter fluid or any other flammable liquid once the fire is started and the coals are heated.

Remember, those coals are hot — coal burns at an average temperature of 1,000 degrees F — and they stay that way for quite a while. A charcoal grill will continue to emit heat for an hour or two, perhaps longer, so be sure to keep children away, and never dump the coals until they're cool. Drengenberg says many burn injuries happen at beaches and parks when children are exposed to hot charcoals dumped by others.


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Ronald Agrella is a freelance writer and former editor of The Boston Globe’s Boston.com.