With Labor Day weekend around the corner, Texas AgriLife Extension Service experts advise additional caution related to fire and food safety while cooking outdoors.

"With the drought, it's extremely important that people take extra care if planning to grill outdoors, especially in an open area such as a public park," said Janie Harris, AgriLife Extension specialist in family development and resource management in College Station. "While most counties still have burn bans, some have gotten sufficient rain and have lifted those bans, but everyone should still be vigilant when it comes to outdoor cooking fire safety."

Counties have stiff fines for people who engage in any outdoor activity that does not take place in a fire-protected enclosure and can produce sparks or flames which could result in a fire, Harris said.

"People not only need to be cautious about the potential for fire from outdoor cooking, but also from fireworks and smoking," she said. "But since three out of four households have an outdoor grill, and since cookouts are such a huge Labor Day weekend tradition, we want to ask people to take added precautions when grilling at home or away."

The National Fire Protection Association estimates gas and charcoal grills cause 4,200 outdoor fires and 1,500 structure fires annually in or on residential properties, resulting in a total property loss of almost $30 million.

Some outdoor grilling fire safety tips offered by AgriLife Extension experts, the National Fire Protection Association and others are:

Set up the grill on a concrete surface or on ground where grass and vegetation in the area are trimmed and where there are no dry leaves or brush in the vicinity. Place the grill in an open area away from deck railings, eaves and overhanging branches or other potentially combustible surfaces. If using a gas grill, check for leaks before using it for the first time each year and make sure hose connections are tight. Set the grill at least 10 feet away from your house or building, and do not grill in a garage or under a carport or other surface that might catch fire. Keep young children and pets at least three feet from the grill. Remove any grease or fat buildup from the grill and/or in the trays below the grill. Keep charcoal fluid out of the reach of children and away from heat sources. Never leave the grill unattended once the fire has been lit. Do not attempt to move a hot grill. Keep a multi-purpose fire extinguisher within relatively easy reach. Use flame-retardant mitts and grilling tools with long handles instead of household forks or short-handled tongs. When finished grilling, let the coals completely cool before disposing, and use a metal container for disposal. If using a liquid propane grill, use extreme caution and always follow manufacturer recommendations for connecting or disconnecting the tank.

Along with fire safety, food safety is another important factor to consider when grilling or cooking outdoors, said Dr. Jenna Anding, program leader in the AgriLife Extension food and nutrition unit.

"You don't want to remember Labor Day as the day you or someone in your family got sick from a foodborne illness," Anding said. "To keep cookouts safe, it's important to ensure a clean grilling workspace and safe food preparation."

She said maintaining food quality and freshness by ensuring proper temperatures during its storage and when cooking are vital to food safety.

"You need to begin by choosing meat, poultry or seafood that's fresh and of high quality," she said. "At the grocery store, select your meat last and get it home as soon as possible. If the trip from the grocery store to your home is more than a half-hour, take a cooler to put your refrigerated items in."

Anding said poultry, fish, seafood or ground beef should be cooked or frozen within a day or two, and that steaks or pork chops should be cooked or frozen within four to five days.

"Also, the safest way to thaw meat or poultry is by placing it in the refrigerator a day or two before you plan to cook it," she added. "You can also thaw in the microwave, but if you do, cook the food right away; don't let it sit. However, some foods may not thaw out evenly and other parts of the food may be partially cooked, so it's still better to let them thaw out it in the fridge."

Regardless, she added, never thaw meats at room temperature as this may increase the number of germs related to foodborne illness.

Anding said if refrigerated food is being transported to another location for cooking, it should kept at 40 degrees farenheit or colder, using a cooler and ice or ice packs, and "you should only take what you plan to cook and eat that day."

She also said raw meat, poultry or seafood should be tightly wrapped or stored in a sealed bag or container, and kept in a different cooler than other foods.

"This will reduce the risk of cross-contamination," she explained.

Make sure hands, cooking area and cooking utensils are clean to reduce the spread of germs to the food, she noted.

"If you're cooking away from home and not sure about a water source where you're going, take your own water and paper towels or use anti-bacterial towelettes or hand sanitizer," she said.

Anding said be sure to wash hands before and after touching raw meat, poultry or seafood, making sure food preparation surfaces, cutting boards and grilling utensils, and serving platters are washed and sanitized.

"Unwashed utensils and platters can still contaminate food, even if you've maintained proper food storage, preparation, and cooking standards," she said.

"If you've placed raw meat or fish on a platter before grilling, do not use that same plate to serve the food unless it can be cleaned with hot, soapy water first."

Anding said foods on a grill can brown quickly and look as though they are sufficiently cooked when they are not. A food thermometer is the only way to ensure foods have been cooked to a safe internal temperature.

"Cook all poultry to 165 degrees, fully cooked meats like hot dogs to 165 degrees and hamburgers to 160 degrees. Beef, pork, lamb, and veal steaks, chops, and roasts should be cooked to at least 145 degrees. For safety, however, allow these foods to ‘rest' for 3 minutes after removing them from the grill before serving."

After cooking, she added, be sure to keep the food hot until it is served - at least 140 degrees -- otherwise, eat or refrigerate it right away.

"Keep food covered and never let it sit out for more than two hours, and if the weather is 90 degrees or hotter, eat or store it within one hour," she said. "We usually say ‘More than two is bad for you,' but when it's this hot outside, that should be just one hour."

Anding said more information on outdoor cooking safety may be obtained by contacting the local county AgriLife Extension agent for family and consumer sciences or reading the related U.S. Department of Agriculture fact sheet on safe food handling at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Barbecue_Food_Safety/.