CHICAGO (STMW) — The Fourth of July is the biggest grilling day of the year, and many will flock to the lakefront and Chicago area parks to enjoy a few burgers, hot dogs and anything else some hot coals can turn into a meal.

But it’s the aftermath that can prove dangerous — and we’re not talking about heartburn or Uncle Al’s boozy political commentary.

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No, it’s actually the toll hot charcoal can take on Mother Nature.

The Chicago Park District is trying to get the word out to those tempted to toss the still-glowing charcoal at the foot of some of the 170,000 oaks, maples and other trees. The burning coals shorten the trees’ lives.

“Imagine if you were standing with your two legs in the grass and someone took a grouping of hot coals and dumped them on your ankle and you could not move,” said Adam Schwerner, director of the Department of Natural Resources for the park district.

“Consider what would happen? Apply that similar situation to a tree in the landscape. Though they can’t cry out, they’re suffering the same kind of result. Trees have an epidermis, which is their bark,” Schwerner said, and hot coals kill the living cells of the tree.

“We’ve had trees burst into flames from the inside, from coals being dumped at the base,” he said.

“Think about the heat generated by a grill. It’s used to cook your food,” Schwerner said.

Nationally, the most popular holidays for barbecuing is Independence Day, followed by Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to a consumer survey conducted by the trade group Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

“If you have a grill, it’s probably being used on Fourth of July,” said Leslie Wheeler, a spokeswoman for the association.

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But with the Fourth of July capping a three-day weekend, there may be more people hitting the parks and lakefront than usual this weekend, and park officials are asking people to keep an eye out for the red metal “hot coals cans.”

“We have grills at 63rd Street [Beach] and Montrose” Harbor, Schwerner said, noting the built-in grills at those locations. “In a perfect world, we’d have people grill where there are red cans.”

If you’re heading to the park or even staying at home, experts suggest you have a fire-retardant container on hand to dispose of hot coals.

First douse the coals with water to cool them off, then put them in the container, said Jeff Allen, executive director of the National Barbecue Association.

And spent charcoal, once cooled, can be recycled as fertilizer, Allen said.

“The main thing we recommend or request of people is that they don’t just leave them,” Allen said, pointing out that walking away from disposable grills or just dumping the coals and walking away could cause a fire.

Some people may think the base of a tree is a safe dumping ground because the coals are away from an area were people might walk, Park District spokewoman Zvezdana Kubat. But it’s time to rethink that notion, she said.

Otherwise trees that should live a century could get cut down in their 30s. Already, hundreds of trees have been damaged or killed by hot coals.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a mature tree in our largest parks that haven’t been damaged by the hot coals,” Kubat said.

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(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2010. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)