It’s possible that fire rings on the beach are a major contributor to air pollution. But there's reason to doubt it, especially since air regulators don't appear to have been worried about the venerable tradition of the Southern California beach bonfire until the city of Newport Beach got into the act.

There aren’t as many fire rings as there used to be; many cities got rid of them years ago because of liability issues. They’re certainly not used every day, or pretty much at all during certain seasons.

But now that Newport Beach has asked the Coastal Commission for permission to remove fire rings in that city — the complaint is about how the smoke might pollute the air near local residents, but many suspect that residents don’t want so many “inlanders” attracted to their town — air regulators in Southern California are considering banning them generally, even in those cities that want them, The Times' Gale Holland reports. Tens of thousands are protesting, including the city of Huntington Beach.

If air-quality agencies find that the bonfires truly do significant damage to our lungs — more than all those thousands upon thousands of wood-burning fireplaces in older private homes that are allowed to keep going on all but a handful of days? — then perhaps they can justify reducing the number of rings. First, we'd need to see some major evidence. But the regulators should have some respect for the grand tradition of the Southern California beach bonfire, put the numbers in perspective and allow at least some fire rings to stay.

Let’s face it, more crowded and environmentally aware times mean that a trip to the beach isn’t what it used to be. Collecting shells is prohibited in many areas — a good thing, since visitors were grabbing so many shells, they were harming the tide pools — as is smoking and, in a few jurisdictions, digging holes or playing paddleball. The concern is injury or nuisance to other beachgoers during the most crowded days, and the cigarette butts that used to litter the beach were just gross.

Fair enough. We have a collective responsibility to protect the beaches, not become utter pests to each other and to try and clean up the air. But there should also be a sense of community responsibility to retain some plain old fun. It’s sad to think of a generation growing up without bonfires.

Fortunately, the Coastal Commission, the protector of public beach access, seems to get what this is all about and is reportedly fighting to keep the fire rings. Fight on, commission! Those fire rings have been there a long time; most people moved in near the beach knowing what the situation was.

At the very minimum, if Newport thinks this is such a problem, it also should be committed to banning all wood-burning fires in private homes throughout the year, as well as any fires on the patios.

Better yet, let's just keep the fire rings.

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