Ten people, mostly youngsters, have been seriously burned in smoldering fire pits at Orange County beaches in the last two months--a number that tops annual totals for the last two years, according to doctors and fire officials.
Officials said there is no explanation for the spike beyond the fact that people--whether they've come to the beach to enjoy a bonfire or are dumping hot coals from a barbecue--are being reckless.
The pits, officials said, are accidents waiting to happen, especially for youngsters unaware that white hot coals may rest just beneath the sand. Alarmed by the increase in burn cases, officials reminded beach-goers Tuesday that extinguishing fires by pouring sand over coals or burning wood only disguises the danger of fire pits.
"You, in effect, create an oven if you put sand over a fire," said Dr. Bruce Achauer, co-director of the UCI Regional Burn Center in Orange. "It is the exact wrong thing to do." Coals will continue to smolder beneath the sand, longer than if left exposed, he said.
"It is a problem because you get kids on the beach, playing, and it doesn't look like there's any [danger] there because of the sand, but if they step in the wrong place it can result in very deep burns," said Dr. Marianne Cinat, co-director of the center.
Medical officials, firefighters and even several victims spoke at the burn center Tuesday to explain the proper way to douse bonfires and remind beach-goers of how easy it is to suffer a serious burn while playing.
"It is hard to say why the numbers have gone up, but part of the problem is education," said Capt. Kirk Summers, a spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority.
Beach-goers, he said, should extinguish fires by pouring water over the coals and avoid heaping sand on top of burning or smoldering objects.
All state beaches in Orange County permit fires in designated concrete rings, which are marked with caution signs, officials said. It is illegal at state and city beaches to build bonfires outside the rings. Further, state beaches and most city strands require that standard backyard barbecues brought to the beach be at least 18 inches off the sand. Some cities require that barbecues can only be used if placed inside the concrete rings.
The beach accidents in the past two months have popped up along the Orange County coastline, from Doheny State Beach to Bolsa Chica, officials said. Last year there were nine people seriously burned for the entire year and six the year before that.
Chris Egan, a Huntington Beach state lifeguard, said sand-covered coals left in fire rings are a common hazard, but even more frustrating are beach-goers who build illegal fires and leave hot coals scattered in the sand.
"It is really hard to keep track and ticket all [illegal] fires. The biggest problem is: Sand makes the [heat] stay overnight. Then some kid comes around . . . ," Egan said.
Alexandria Wood, a Yorba Linda 10-year-old, was injured last month when she lost her balance standing on the edge of a 2-foot fire pit at Corona del Mar State Beach, stumbling onto hot coals covered in sand.
"Somebody bumped me and I fell in and my left foot got burned," she said. "At first I couldn't feel anything. Then my mom had to stuff a towel in my mouth because I was screaming so loud."
Avril Wood said her daughter was in the fire pit for what seemed like only a second: "We were [at the beach] three minutes. That's all it took. We were at a birthday party and life changed. It took three minutes and my daughter's foot looked like it was melting."
Alexandria sustained third-degree burns on the bottom and side of her foot and was hospitalized for 13 days while undergoing treatment.
"The best thing to do is assume there are hot coals in the fire pits," said John Blauer, a Newport Beach lifeguard captain. "You have to assume that."