Palapas are those thatch roofed huts that look so great on a tropical island like Galveston.  With a roof made out of palm branches lashed to a wooden frame, they are resistant to windstorms, shed water, rustle ever so softly in the breeze and just generally send us into an immediate state of vacation bliss. And the palapa sales team has hit Galveston in full force.

Up and down the Seawall, at hotels and pools and backyards across the Island, palapas are popping up like so many mushrooms after last month’s monsoon rains.

So what’s the problem? Well, every now and then one of these palapas catches on fire. If not properly treated with flame retardant they burst into flame like a grass fire after a drought.  Should you be unlucky enough to be under one or nearby, the consequences could be tragic if not downright deadly.

Safety regulations require that roof materials meet certain requirements with respect to flammability.  To ensure that the requirements are met, the materials have to be tested and evaluated. Manufacturers of roofing materials send their products to special laboratories to have this work done.  Only palm leaves are not manufactured and there are no tests to determine if a palm leaf, treated with a fire retardant, will meet the minimum requirements for safety.

The sales person will tell you that the leaves are treated with a spray on fire retardant. But how can you be sure that what is coming out of the sprayer is a retardant and not just water?  Fire retardants have to be re-applied to the palm leaves regularly to maintain effectiveness.

What about restaurants and bars?  These types of establishments are required to meet many safety regulations from the number and size of exits required to the type of alarm systems.  Larger ones are required to have fire sprinklers.  Wouldn’t they be safe? Generally, no.  Fire sprinklers spray water, which gravity will pull down to the ground, it is nearly impossible to protect a flammable roof with sprinklers. And fire sprinklers are set off by heat, which rises.  Sprinklers under a fire may not get hot enough to discharge before the fire gets too big. Putting a hundred or so folks under a highly flammable roof just isn’t a good idea. Open flame tiki torches marking the entrance is an even worse idea.

So should palapas be allowed, and if so, under what conditions?

I’ll preface this by saying that I love palapas and one of my favorite vacation spots features a large restaurant under a beautiful palapa.

The conditions which would make a commercial palapa less dangerous are these:

  • The occupancy under the palapa roof is limited to no more than 100 persons
  • The number and size of required exits are doubled
  • No open flames under the palapa or within 25 feet
  • No other buildings within 40 feet

Backyard palapas should either be made from synthetic materials (manufactured to be flame retardant) or kept 25 feet or more from any nearby structure.  Putting your charcoal or gas grille underneath is not a good idea.

Officials having jurisdiction over construction need to work with the community to find ways to incorporate palapas into our Island architecture – but they must ensure that safety  is not compromised.  A tough challenge indeed. And the palapa that catches fire may ignite its neighbors as well.

So if you find yourself enjoying a meal or beverage in a tropical breeze under the palm thatched roof of a palapa, just remember to sit near the exit.