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San Diego exploring ban on wood-fueled beach bonfires outside of city-designated rings

A family roasts marshmallows in a fire pit on Fiesta Island.
A family roasts marshmallows in a fire pit on Fiesta Island.
( San Diego Union-Tribune)

Supporters tout improved safety and air quality; critics say the change would threaten a cherished tradition.

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A new San Diego proposal would ban beach bonfires fueled by wood or coal unless those fires are inside the limited number of designated fire rings provided by the city.

Supporters say the change would eliminate the risk of lingering embers burning people while also boosting air quality because fires fueled by wood and coal billow clouds of smoke into neighborhoods near city beaches.

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The change would also bring San Diego’s beaches in line with other state beaches that already ban makeshift wood-fueled beach fires. It would also make it easier for lifeguards and police to enforce beach fire regulations.

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Critics say the change would deprive many residents, especially low-income families, the cherished tradition of a low-cost beach bonfire. They say the city doesn’t provide nearly enough fire rings to meet demand, especially in summer.

Some say the proposal is an effort by wealthy residents to keep out lower-income residents by severely restricting a popular activity. Others say it’s an overreaction to a surge in illegal bonfires during the early stages of the pandemic.

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The proposal would still allow fires outside of city-designated fire rings, but only if they are fueled by portable propane devices. Such devices leave no dangerous embers and produce less smoke.

The City Council’s Environment Committee was enthusiastic enough about the proposal last week to vote unanimously to ask City Atty. Mara Elliott to draw up municipal code amendments needed to make the change.

“I support safe, legal beach fires,” said Councilmember Joe LaCava, who is spearheading the effort. “These amendments are essential in keeping our public beaches safe while preserving the public’s access to the unique experience of beach fires.”

Councilmember Dr. Jennifer Campbell expressed similar sentiments.

“It’s important that we protect the health and safety of our residents and visitors, while improving public knowledge of what the rules are for beach fires,” she said.

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Though Councilmember Marni von Wilpert voted in favor of the proposal, she expressed concerns about the limited number of city-designated fire rings. The city eliminated many rings in 2008 and has never replaced them.

“If we don’t provide enough, people will just do it illegally,” von Wilpert said.

She was echoing what many speakers told the committee. They said wood-fueled beach bonfires are such a tradition in San Diego for residents and tourists that enforcing a ban will be difficult.

“There will still be those who will defy current and future regulations because the city has made enjoying a fire on the beach so difficult,” said Kenneth Hunrichs. “Do not ban natural wood beach fires in private fire bowls unless the city is prepared to provide and maintain them everywhere they are needed.”

Melinda Merryweather said the proposal is an example of the city favoring people who live near beaches over average citizens.

“This is so sad to think the city of San Diego believes the beaches belong to the people that live by them,” she said. “It is everyone’s beach, and when they moved to the beach and smelled smoke they should have moved, not take this part of California history away from all of us.”

Supporters of the proposed change said the makeshift bonfires make beaches dirty and dangerous because hot coals are typically left behind.

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“Our beaches are filthy,” said Cathy Ives of Don’t Trash Mission Beach. “We have an average of five illegal fires on the sand every single night.”

Larry Webb, president of the Mission Beach Town Council, said he loves the traditional bonfires but still supports the proposed change.

“The city does not have the means to enforce regulations to keep our beaches from being trashed,” he said.

Residents of La Jolla Shores said the problem is even more severe there. Their beach has 13 city-designated fire rings, but the number of fires sometimes exceeds 40, they say.

Police and lifeguards expressed support for the proposed change.

“Lifeguards routinely put out fires and remove hazardous debris from illegal beach fires that could injure beach patrons,” said Marine Safety Capt. Maureen Hodges. “Changing the municipal code could help prevent illegal beach fires and make the beaches safer for everyone who visits.”

Scott Wahl, a captain in the Police Department’s Northern Division, said the changes will make the rules easier to understand and enforce.

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“The propane option will be much cleaner, safer and cause fewer problems,” he said.

After Elliott drafts the proposed municipal code amendments, they will be presented to the full City Council for a vote.

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