Fire ring opponents are blowing smoke


We Southern Californians love our beach bonfires. The marshmallow roasts and fireside family singalongs are a rite of summer that exemplifies our do-your-own-thing, hang-loose lifestyle.

The fires have been under attack for decades, most recently by the city of Newport Beach, which is trying to yank dozens of fire rings off the sand on the Balboa Strand and Corona del Mar State Beach. Newport Beach, which has long complained of late-night partying and the messes left behind, cited health risks from the smoke, and safety issues for people who might fall in a fire ring with hot ashes.

Last time I checked in, the Coastal Commission was fighting back, saying the fire pits offer needed low-cost recreation to the public.


In the latest chapter in this beach blanket bingo, the South Coast Air Quality Management District has stepped in with a proposed year-round ban on open burns at all beaches in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The district staff cites the health of coastal residents and visitors exposed to fine-particulate pollutants. But those pollutants can come from many sources. What’s really going on, it seems to me and others, is that a small contingent of wealthy residents don’t want other people running around what they think of as their front yards.

Residents who like the fire rings wrote in to the Coastal Commission saying some of their neighbors don’t like the riffraff, as they see the rest of us, that gets dragged in. Southern California communities have a long history of trying to boot outsiders off their beaches. Before fire ring opponents brought up the particulates, it was kids hurting themselves on hot coals.

A Newport Beach city councilman once said he was against expanding grassy areas at Corona del Mar State Beach because “with grass, we usually get Mexicans coming in there early in the morning, and they claim it as theirs, and it becomes their personal, private grounds all day.”

That was 10 years ago, and the councilman’s remark is wildly out of touch with the diverse Orange County of today. Thousands of people, among them Newport and Corona del Mar old-timers, petitioned the Coastal Commission to save the fire rings, which have been there longer — up to 60 years — than most of the complainers.

“I grew up in the area, and some of my best summertime memories involve afternoons and evenings at the fire pits roasting marshmallows with friends and family,” Catherine Anderson of Newport Beach wrote.


“I was brought to these fire pits as a child, and now as a new dad, want the opportunity to carry on that tradition when my son is old enough,” Timothy Kennedy of Santa Ana wrote.

The problem is the naysayers have the ear of the Newport Beach City Council. When the Coastal Commission didn’t give Newport Beach what it wanted, fire-ring opponents poked around for someone who would. The state has hundreds of boards and authorities, and given the chance, people will go forum-shopping.

The air quality district had been floating a proposal to increase no-burn days for residential fireplaces. But beach fires were not part of the package.

Air quality board chairman William A. Burke, who also sits on the Coastal Commission, met in late February with John Hamilton, one of the leading fire-ring opponents, at the Luxe Hotel in Brentwood. Burke agreed to “look into the [air quality] district’s position on the [particulate] matter and our regulation of the same,” according to a disclosure form he filed with the agency’s office in San Francisco.

Later, Burke spoke forcefully at a Coastal Commission meeting against the fire pits, linking them to brain cancer and fetal damage. “I’m very passionate about this issue. I’ve spent half my life studying this issue,” he said. “...Don’t come to me and tell me you’ve got to have fire rings because you need a good time.”

Hamilton, a Corona del Mar resident, testified before the Coastal Commission that he opposed the fire rings because he had recently been diagnosed with emphysema. “I love nostalgia. I collect nostalgia. I’m crazy for nostalgia,” Hamilton said. “For me my health is more important.”

But Newport Beach has been unable to show the fire rings are the main or even a significant source of pollutants for neighbors. There’s no doubt particulates are harmful. But backyard fire pits, wood-fired ovens, hamburger grills and diesel-powered yachts also spew particulates, in some cases, in far greater amounts than the beach fires.

But the air quality district is going after only the fire rings.

“There is no data,” said air board member Shawn Nelson, who also heads the Orange County Board of Supervisors. “If you’re standing next to a fire, sure there’s soot. But I don’t believe in the sincerity of Newport Beach’s health concerns.”

The district says it has to go after every possible pollution source to meet state and federal air quality standards. But the ban would be silly at Dockweiler State Beach, the last major outpost of beach fires in L.A. County.

Flanked by a refinery and a sewage plant, Dockweiler doesn’t have residential neighbors. Hundreds of homes were removed from the bluff overlooking the beach because of the racket from jets taking off from LAX nearby. Those of us who go there to sit around a fire don’t need a government board to protect us from the soot. We’ll take our chances.

Reached by phone, Burke says he is in meetings to convert the fire rings to clean-burning fuel sources, possibly natural gas or propane. A district spokesman said it’s “premature” to say how the plan would be carried out, or who would pay for it. But the idea received nearly unanimous support from fire ring backers who spoke at a public meeting Thursday, the spokesman added.

Newport Beach proposes to replace the fire rings with volleyball courts. What family or church group is going to play in the dark?

“A volleyball court is not going to do anything for a family from Stanton, who can’t afford coastal property but just want to enjoy being by the water,” Nelson said. “Clearly they want to run people out by sunset.”

“We’re not trying to take anyone’s fun away,” said Sam Atwood, the air quality board spokesman. Well, then don’t.