Air-quality regulators narrowly approved the first-ever restrictions on beach bonfires that have long been popular along the coast in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The 7-6 vote by the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District came after heated debate Friday. Dozens of bonfire supporters and a bipartisan slate of elected officials from Huntington Beach and inland Orange County showed up en masse to pack the board's hearing in Diamond Bar.
The decision followed a months-long dispute that pitted the public health concerns of coastal residents against a tradition that bonfire fans consider part of the cultural identity of California.
The regulations establish buffer zones and other spacing requirements to protect beachfront homes from the fine particle pollution arising from the region's 765 beach fire rings. Those requirements will allow most fire rings to remain but will almost certainly require removal or relocation of all 60 fire rings in Newport Beach, where the dispute began.
The regulation requires fire rings to be at least 700 feet from homes, or closer if the rings are spaced at least 100 feet apart. The regulations also allow cities to ban all beach fires within their limits if they declare the fires a nuisance.
Huntington Beach, which embraces beach fires, can keep most of its 530 fire rings under the regulations, except for about 30 that sit within 700 feet of a mobile home park.
San Bernardino County Supervisor Josie Gonzales, who sits on the air district board, said the rules strike the proper balance for an agency charged with protecting people from air pollution. "This is not a popularity contest, this is a health concern," she said.
Board member Shawn Nelson, an Orange County supervisor who voted against the rules, said "these fire rings don't pose a health risk significant enough for this agency to preoccupy itself with this. We stuck our nose where we really have better places to put it."
Opponents say that elitism by wealthy oceanfront neighborhoods is what is really behind the move.
"This is not about particulate matter, this is not about dirty air at the beach," said Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach). "What this is about is a small group of landowners that don't want the public to access their beaches."
Newport Beach residents who support removing the fire rings said their concerns were based on health hazards, not out of a desire to keep out-of-towners off the beach.
Jack Larson, a Korean war veteran who lives close to the fire rings in Corona del Mar, said the smoke is so bad he has to keep his windows closed on summer nights. "I think that I'm entitled to have clean air just as much as everyone else," he told the air district board.
Air district officials acknowledge a few hundred beach bonfires account for just a trace of the total fine particulate pollution sent into Southern California skies each year. But they say the pollution from a concentration of fires are a serious health problem for neighborhoods nearby.
The pollution rate from standing around one beach fire ring is "is the equivalent of gathering around the exhaust of three diesel trucks," said Philip Fine, assistant deputy executive officer for science & technology advancement at the air district.
Thirty fire rings put out as much fine particulate pollution as a large oil refinery, he said.
The state Coastal Commission, which has jurisdiction over land use and access on California beaches, this week questioned the 700-foot buffer zone.
"The commission has not seen an assessment of the actual health risk that would exist if a lesser buffer from residences or smaller distance between rings were required," Deputy Director Sherilyn Sarb wrote in a letter to the air district on Wednesday.
The commision also warned that it has sole jurisdiction over the fire rings and that none can be removed without its permission. Conceding that air quality officials can ban the use of those rings for bonfires, the commission suggested that they could be used for other purposes, such as grilling.
Newport Beach Councilwoman Leslie Daigle, who joined a unanimous City Council vote last year to remove all of its fire rings, said she has since changed her mind.
"The fire ring examination has revealed to me an overwhelming love and respect for this outdoor tradition," she told the air district board.
The dispute began after Newport Beach proposed removing all 60 of its beach fire rings near the Balboa Pier and at Corona del Mar State Beach.
The 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.