Newport Beach pushes back; fire rings returning to beaches

Popular but controversial fire rings are coming back to the shore in Newport Beach

Deciding that nothing beats a roaring beachfront bonfire, city leaders in Newport Beach have decided to defy air quality experts and bring back the popular wood-burning fire rings.

Thirty wood-burning fire pits will be permitted at beaches in Balboa and Corona del Mar. Tuesday's city council decision takes effect immediately.

The decision is the latest chapter in what started off as a local debate over the fire rings and quickly escalated into a regional issue pitting the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the California Coastal Commission.

After some residents complained that smoke from the pits drifted into their neighborhoods, Newport Beach eventually decided to convert the fire rings to charcoal-only.

But Tuesday’s vote by the Newport Beach City Council reversed that.

"Charcoal doesn't keep you warm," Councilman Scott Peotter said before the vote. "It's great for cooking hamburgers, but when it comes to a bonfire, it just doesn't cut it."

In addition to bringing back 30 of the wood-burning rings immediately, the council voted to eventually expand the total to 60s rings at Corona del Mar, Balboa and Newport Dunes and near the Newport Pier.

Not everyone on the council was delighted with the decision.

"Anyone who denies the health impacts [of wood-burning rings] should be ashamed of themselves," Councilman Keith Curry said.

The Coastal Commission and AQMD have battled for legal authority over the issue for more than two years, often leaving Newport Beach in the middle.

The debate over charcoal and wood has pitted residents against one another in many parts of the city. Beach neighbors urged the council to continue the charcoal-only policy, citing respiratory problems stemming from wood smoke.

Charles Farrell, who lives next to the pits near the Balboa Pier, said that during the summer, when people flock to the beach and regularly burn wood, he would consider checking into a hotel to get away from the smoke.

"The amount of wood smoke is something that one cannot acclimate to," he said.

When wood is burned, it releases particles that have cancer-causing potential, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"Long-term exposures, such as those experienced by people living for many years in areas with high particle levels, have been associated with problems such as reduced lung function and the development of chronic bronchitis, and even premature death," according to the EPA.

Those who support allowing wood-burning rings said it's a deeply nostalgic tradition.

Others suggested that some residents' true aim in supporting the switch to charcoal, which is more expensive than wood, was to keep low-income families off the beach.

"This was not about smoke," said Ray Englebrecht, a local fight promoter who ran unsuccessfully for city council last year. "It was about residents in our community that didn't like the looks of people coming down to the beach."

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