The debate over wood-burning fire pits on the seashore is being rekindled in Newport Beach, where city leaders are considering again allowing the popular oceanfront bonfires at some beaches.
If the Newport Beach City Council approves plans Tuesday evening, 60 wood-burning fire rings could ultimately be returned to beaches in Balboa and Corona del Mar.
The debate over the wood-burning fire rings began in Newport Beach when residents complained about the smoke billowing into their neighborhoods and then quickly mushroomed into a statewide air quality issue. The bonfires, though, remain deeply nostalgic to some who see them as a time-honored diversion for beach visitors.
Newport Beach switched the fire rings to charcoal only 10 months ago to comply with South Coast Air Quality Management District rules.
Since then, however, four new council members were elected, at least one of whom vowed to revisit the issue.
The new fire ring proposal calls for a blend of charcoal and wood-burning fire rings at Big Corona beach and the sands on either side of the Balboa Pier. Fire rings would also be added to the beach near Newport Pier and Newport Dunes, areas that had previously not had fire rings.
The plan would require a development permit from the California Coastal Commission, although an interim plan calling for far fewer wood-burning rings would not, City Manager Dave Kiff confirmed.
Corona del Mar residents Frank and Barbara Peters, who live near Big Corona, said they were not surprised by news that wood might be returning to the beach fires.
The Peters have expressed concerns about health effects of breathing wood smoke, and although they had pushed for all rings to be removed, Frank Peters said he now believes that the charcoal-only rings are a good compromise.
"We knew this was going to come back," he said. "This will take the rest of our lives."
Peters said that if the council approves the plans, he would take the fight to the Coastal Commission.
The City Council voted in March 2012 to remove all beach fire rings. The issue went before the Coastal Commission, then caught the attention of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which at one point proposed banning all beach fire rings in Los Angeles and Orange counties. In July 2013, the agency instead amended beach bonfire rules, including calling for the 700-foot buffer between fire rings and homes.
In November 2013, the city considered a new plan that would have removed more than half the city's fire rings, but that plan never went before the Coastal Commission for approval.
Eventually, the City Council approved the charcoal-only rule, and city funds paid for charcoal to be given free to some beach visitors. The city, however, never obtained a coastal development permit for the charcoal-only plan, and in November, staff said the permit request was on hold.
The current City Council has only two members who voted in 2012 to remove fire rings.
When asked if the existing council was likely to agree with her, Barbara Peters shrugged.
"It just depends on which way the wind is blowing," she said.