Will the Rings of Fire Burn Out?

Air quality regulators ponder an icon

By John Howard

Special from Capitol Weekly

California’s beaches, as iconic as freeways and Hollywood, are under fire – literally.

Hundreds of fire rings—those ubiquitous, cement-edged pits that for more than seven decades have allowed generations of beach goers to build bonfires near the ocean—are on a hit list in Orange and Los Angeles counties amid complaints that they damage air quality. Air-pollution fighters, following complaints from a number of coastal homeowners, mostly in Newport Beach and Corona del Mar, are likely to decide the issue next month.

The dispute is emotional, heated and highly politicized, with supporters of the fire pits recalling fond family memories and foes complaining of health hazards. 

“The question arises as to why cigarette smoking is banned on most beaches in California yet blazing bonfires filled with wood particulates (soot) are allowed to burn day and night subjecting beach goers who do not choose to burn the contaminants,” Harold Parker of Corona del Mar told the Coastal Commission, which considered the issue in March after local officials ordered the rings removed.

“For the good health and longevity of current and future generations, I can only urge you to step up and do the right thing,” he added, demanding that the rings be eradicated.

The commission’s staff stepped up, but in the other direction: It disagreed with efforts to remove the fire rings, saying the pits offer “a popular form of lower cost public recreation (and) removing the fire rings from the beaches of Newport Beach and Corona del Mar would shift the already high demand to other coastal locations….” 

The staff noted that some people may suffer ill health effects from the wood smoke, but that “the city has not demonstrated that the wood smoke from the city’s beach fire rings is directly responsible for a public health problem.” A commission decision is pending.

“The public is clear on this,” Jamie Dow of Newport Beach wrote the commission. “Newport Beach and Southern California residents in general want the pits to stay and just a few disgruntled homeowners are attempting to make a stink. The vast majority of peninsula residents – myself included, as a long-time Newport resident with sensitive lungs who grew up just blocks away from the fire pits and never had a problem with them – oppose the city in their actions here.”

Critics of the fire rings approached the Air Quality Management District, which has jurisdiction in Orange and Los Angeles counties, a move that dramatically raised the stakes. Instead of the 60 fire pits originally under discussion – about three dozen near the Balboa pier and the rest on Corona del Mar State Beach – an AQMD decision could any move to remove the pits by the AQMD could affect hundreds more, including some 500 in Huntington Beach.

“Tourists come from the world over for a sunset beach bonfire,” said Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, who has authored ACR 52, a resolution seeking to retain the fire pits. 

For a freshman lawmaker it’s a good issue: His resolution recognizes “the tradition and cultural significance of fire rings on state beaches as part of California’s recreational and community activity, and beach lifestyle.” 

“People are united, this is a bipartisan issue,” he said. “They (foes) went to the AQMD and said, ‘This is air pollution,’ but it’s not. And it’s not about local control. It’s about a few property owners that didn’t want the riff-raff coming onto their beach.” Petitions to keep the fire rings also are circulating.

An AQMD ruling could affect pits at more than a dozen beaches including, municipal beaches in Huntington Beach and state beaches at Bolsa Chica, Corona del Mar, Doheny State Beach, Capistrano Beach Park and San Clemente State Beach.

There are about 40 public beaches from San Diego to Sonoma that have fire rings, according to a tally provided by supporters.

Removal of fire pits from state beaches would prove a financial blow to state Parks and Recreation Department, the strapped agency that administers the beaches. The department came under fire recently after it was disclosed that the department hid money from lawmakers and the Department of Finance. Last week, the attorney general’s office said that a criminal investigation was under way.

Politically, the dispute already has claimed a major casualty.

William Burke, a foe of the fire rings, resigned his position April 12 on the California Coastal Commission last month after two Republican lawmakers questioned whether his dual role – he also is the chair of the AQMD board – constituted a conflict of interest. 

Burke, a Democrat appointed by the Assembly speaker, has been controversial for years, in part because of his responsibilities on both panels. 

His latest flap erupted after he compared the beaches with fire pits to carpet-bombed war zones. Assemblyman Allan Mansour of Costa Mesa and Sen. Mimi Walters asked the state attorney general to look into a potential conflict. "The clashing interests between the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the California Coastal Commission make it impossible for one member to be an effective and loyal representative on both bodies," the legislators wrote.

Burke quickly resigned.    

Locally, the fight over the rings “has generated intense controversy in Newport Beach” but the commission noted that the issue may spread beyond southern California.

“A commission decision to approve Newport Beach’s request to remove the fire rings could also set a precedent that could lead to removal of beach fire rings from other parts of the coast,” according to the staff analysis.

Allen says the fire pits are deeply rooted in California’s culture.

“This is who we are in California,” he added.

Capitol Weekly has been a must-read in Sacramento since 1988 and its editor, John Howard, has long been a trustworthy figure in the Capitol community. Visit capitolweekly.net for more stories from the Capitol, and follow Capitol Weekly on Twitter (@Capitol_Weekly) for more updates.

 

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