Southern California beach fire rings’ fate to be decided today

Beachgoers enjoy a bonfire in Huntington Beach over the Fourth of July weekend. Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman says she and other Orange County mayors were told by air quality district staff that pollution from beach fire rings was not even in the agency’s top 100 concerns. “I wondered, then why are they spending so much time and effort pursuing this?” she said.
(David McNew / Getty Images)

Like many defenders of the beach bonfire, Chris Epting has questioned the priorities of air quality regulators who want to clamp down on the hundreds of fire rings that blaze nightly on Los Angeles and Orange County beaches, sending pollutants into beachfront neighborhoods.

“I’ve wondered why they haven’t focused on other areas: inland, the ports or the nightly Disneyland fireworks,” said Epting, who writes a column for the Huntington Beach Independent. “There are a lot of trouble spots and yet there’s been a laser-like focus on something that is almost statistically zero compared to those other sources.”

Epting has a point. Regulators at the South Coast Air Quality Management District concede that the 765 fire rings in Los Angeles and Orange counties are responsible for a trifling amount of fine particulate pollution spewed into Southern California skies each year — and that doesn’t include emissions from wildfires.


But regulators say that argument is beside the point. In their view, widespread pollution isn’t the issue. Of concern are the highly localized particulates that waft into beach communities from a concentration of fires on the sand nearby.

The dispute, raging for months and fed by underlying claims of elitism by wealthy oceanfront neighborhoods, is expected to come to a head today. The South Coast district board will hold a public hearing in Diamond Bar before voting on new restrictions proposed for beach fire rings. Hundreds of beach bonfire boosters are expected to turn out in support of a ritual they consider synonymous with the California lifestyle.

The dispute began earlier this year as Newport Beach proposed removing all 60 of its beach fire rings near the Balboa Pier and at Corona del Mar State Beach. The state Coastal Commission, which has jurisdiction over coastal land use and access, opposed the move, saying it would limit the public’s right to low-cost oceanfront recreation.

Beach fires have been exempt from air quality regulations for years. That’s why air quality regulators stepped into the dispute. They didn’t want the Coastal Commission using that exemption to suggest that open fire rings pose no health risk.

The district’s first act, before it had conducted any air quality tests near fire rings, was to propose a complete ban on fires at all L.A. and Orange County beaches. It provoked an enormous outcry from beachgoers.

The district then conducted monitoring and now estimates that if all 765 rings burn at once, they put out about 2.5% as much pollution as the region’s 1.2 million home fireplaces, which on winter days churn out nearly seven times as much fine particles as all of the power plants in Southern California.

A typical wildfire, by comparison, generates more fine particle pollution than the region’s beach fire rings by the time it burns through one acre of California chaparral, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Still, Southern California regulators call the concentrated, intensive wood burning close to beachfront homes a serious health problem. Open fires are one of the last uncontrolled sources of harmful fine particles and toxins that aggravate lungs and increase hospital admissions for respiratory problems such as bronchitis and asthma. So in the regulators’ view, even one bonfire is as serious a health concern as a diesel-burning big rig.

The district says its monitoring found that pollution jumped significantly several hundred feet downwind of beach fire rings but dropped 98% at 700 feet from the fires as the smoke dispersed.

That finding led to a proposal to keep fire rings at least 700 feet from homes, or closer if the rings are spaced at least 100 feet apart. The regulations would also allow cities to ban all beach fires within their limits if they declare the fires a nuisance. The rules would almost certainly require the removal or relocation of all 60 fire rings in Newport Beach, where fires are concentrated and close to homes.

Huntington Beach, which welcomes beach fires, would be allowed to keep most of its 530 fire rings, except for about 30 that sit within 700 feet of a mobile home park. But Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman said she is perplexed by the air quality district’s actions.

Boardman said the air district’s staff met with her and a group of Orange County mayors in May and told them pollution from beach fire rings was not even in the agency’s top 100 concerns. “I wondered, then why are they spending so much time and effort pursuing this?” she said.

Others suspect a sinister motive.

“In my view this started as ‘keep the common man off the beach’ and just grew from there,” said Laura Gillis, who with her husband hosts about half a dozen bonfire get-togethers a year at Bolsa Chica State Beach. “At the heart of it is privilege and wealth and ‘keep this off my beach’ influence and very little to do with health concerns.”

Outside experts say regulators may be focusing on fire rings because the low-hanging fruit has already been picked: Cars, trucks and power plants are substantially cleaner and the Los Angeles area no longer suffers from the choking smog it did decades ago.

“How many sources of billowing smoke do you see in California? You don’t,” said Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis. “If a power plant’s smokestacks were emitting billowing smoke it would be shut down in a second.”

New homes in the region can no longer be built with wood-burning fireplaces under rules approved in 2008. Since then the air district has also been able to issue wintertime alerts banning wood burning in home fireplaces when poor air quality is forecast.