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‘Burning Man in the South Bay’: A crazy beach party aglow with bonfires and tradition

Even the sunsets do a slow burn at Dockweiler, is one of the only beaches in L.A. County that allows bonfires.
Even the sunsets do a slow burn at Dockweiler, one of the only beaches in L.A. County that allows bonfires.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

We’ve saluted SoCal’s brassy highlights all season: the glint of a mountain campfire, some flaming race cars, the wink of a French horn in the morning sun.

Now we’re at the bonfire beach, L.A.’s candelabra by the sea. What a way to wrap our summer series.

“Just shut up and light the fire,” you say?

OK, fine. You surfer types are so stoic sometimes. The ocean does that to a person; the beach repairs us. It fills any need we might have for mysticism and poetry.

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“But summer out here lasts till Christmas Eve,” you add.

Oh, don’t be such a killjoy. On a practical level, Labor Day weekend is the carpenter’s pencil mark, the place where you cut. From now on, the days shorten, football intrudes, the dull throb of daily obligation gets in the way.

We always insist we’ll still get to the beach after Labor Day, because Californians crave the water, the horizon, the soothing ions allegedly produced by breaking waves — the way the beach repairs us. But we rarely do.

Besides, in a few more weeks, the currents will change, coming down cold from the Gulf of Alaska with the migrating whales. The coastal winds soak up the chill, and summer is gone for good.

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But not tonight. Tonight we have Dockweiler State Beach, one of where even the sunsets do a slow burn.

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Members of the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority dance next to their bonfire at Dockweiler State Beach.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

This is such an urban beach, almost an afterthought, the only real estate they probably couldn’t sell, puddled as it is beneath the backwash of LAX takeoffs.

What they’ve left us with is Woodstock, every summer weekend in perpetuity (let’s hope) a free-for-all festival of the people. Guitars. Boom boxes. Frisbees. Footballs. Platters of charred meat and peppers roasted till they’re black as church shoes.

This may be SoCal’s most populist hangout, virtually free, except for the parking. And what a pageant, what laughter, what an anything-goes, wedding-crasher demeanor.

“We come here for the fire pits,” explains Alex Lorenzo of South Central, here with four friends for the day.

“It’s also the most lax,” says his pal Mike Boviak of San Gabriel.

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True, the rules here seem pretty supple. You’re not supposed to drink on the beach, but I hear people do. It’s more free form than most other local beaches, where you’re under constant scrutiny of lifeguards and police. The county says the bonfire tradition goes back decades, though exactly when is unclear. Longtime locals say they date at least to the late 1950s.

“Welcome to Burning Man in the South Bay,” says Jim Walsh.

Walsh is here early with a huge rental wagon full of scrap wood, the remnants of the skateboard ramp he just tore down in his Manhattan Beach yard.

Now that Walsh’s four sons are older, the youngest one just graduating, dad thought a giant halfpipe blaze would be a symbolic moment, a way to pencil mark this period of family change.

So, the kids are here and a mob of old friends, circling up, roasting marshmallows, playing guitar, smacking each other on the back in celebration of Dad’s bold party move.

“I want my kids to enjoy the pleasures I did,” Walsh says. “I want them to be outside, surf, do things like this.”

Sometimes, good parenting starts with an inferno.

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Kate Remillard, 8, of Manhattan Beach, cools her marshmallows at a bonfire at Dockweiler. The beach trends young, but all ages are represented.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

It glows, this beach, did you get that? Not just with bonfires, but companionship, rites of passage, sloppy first kisses, maybe a contraband brewski or two. Dockweiler trends on the young side, yet draws participants of all ages, all makes and models.

Like any decent party, it takes some prep work. In the height of summer, you need to arrive early to ensure a fire pit: 10 a.m. at the latest, 9 a.m. on Saturdays. But things have begun to ease up now that school is back. On a late summer Friday, bonfire sites didn’t fill up till almost 3 p.m.

As with most bacchanals, the mood improves during the long summer sundown. The food smoke smells better and the behavior turns a little raucous.

“DO NOT STEP IN FIRE PITS,” reads one sign.

That might go without saying. But evidently, that’s been an issue in the past.

By 9 p.m., it’s as if the Roman cavalry rolled in. By 10, it’s like a Mel Brooks musical put on by chimps. Fires are in full flame. You can flit from one party to another. Not everyone is welcoming, but mostly they are. The atmosphere is collegiate, and seems to follow the fundamental rule of a functional society: that most people are good.

Need more lighter fluid? Just ask. Forgot a corkscrew? Sure, right over here.

“I’m just warning you, this beach bash has fiasco written all over it,” I warned friends in the invite. “I’m bringing hot dogs, bratwurst-pineapple sliders and a bunch of firewood I stole from the neighbors.”

Well, sure enough, I forgot the pineapple and the mustard. We look and look, and can’t find the ketchup I know I packed.

But what a fire we had, built in pyramid formation and raging for hours into the moonless night.

You know, Greek soldiers made fires like this to keep warm. Swiss farmers built bonfires to announce their independence from the Habsburgs. To this day, Cajuns still light stacks of flaming logs to guide St. Nick down the Mississippi River.

And why do we?

Because, in an increasingly solitary world, the lure of other people, in the caramel-tint of a roaring beach fire, is just too rich to resist.

Bonfire at Dockweiler State Beach
There are more than 60 fire pits at Dockweiler, L.A.'s party beach.
(Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times)

Such spectacle. At times, you just need to step back toward the waterline, 25 paces away, your ankles frosted with sea foam. You need to step back to appreciate this vivid tableau -- the bonfires up and down Dockweiler, entertaining thousands of beach-goers, who like us are saying their final summer farewells.

I hate goodbyes -- no good at them at all. So no goodbyes here. Just a flaming marshmallow toast:

Here’s to summer. Here’s to the best beach I know.

Chris.Erskine@latimes.com

Essentials

Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey features three miles of shoreline, with more than 60 fire pits. The fire pits are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and you must bring your own firewood. The entrance to the beach is at Vista del Mar and Imperial Highway, right where Imperial reaches the ocean. Parking is $9. After paying, take a right into the long parking lot.


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