Beach bonfire lovers give pollution officials an earful at hearing

South Coast Air Quality Management District board members William A. Burke, from left, Dennis Yates, Michael Cacciotti and Josie Gonzales listen to a member of the public speak on a proposal that would restrict fire pits on Southland beaches.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Regional air quality regulators are getting earful in Diamond Bar on Friday about their plan to place new restrictions on the hundreds of fire rings on Los Angeles and Orange County beaches.

Dozens of fire pit defenders joined a bipartisan slate of elected officials from Huntington Beach and inland Orange County to voice opposition to new rules proposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.


The packed hearing follows a months-long debate that has pitted public health against a tradition bonfire boosters consider part of the cultural identity of the California coast.

The air district proposal would establish buffer zones and other spacing requirements to protect beachfront homes from the fine particle pollution billowing from the region’s 765 beach fire rings.

Opponents claim 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 a trifling amount of fine particulate pollution spewed into Southern California skies each year. But they say fine particulates the fires send into beachfront homes from a concentration of fires on the sand nearby are a serious local health problem.

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 puts out as much fine particulate pollution as a large oil refinery, he said.

The air district proposal would require fire rings to be 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 state Coastal Commission this week questioned whether the air district’s finding that a 700-foot buffer zone was needed between fire rings and homes was arbitrary. That provision would almost certainly require the removal or relocation of all 60 fire rings in Newport Beach, where fires are concentrated and close to homes.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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 all fires on L.A. and Orange county beaches. that provoked an enormous outcry from beachgoers.

Open fires are one of the last uncontrolled sources of harmful fine particles and toxins that aggravate the lungs and increase hospital admissions for respiratory problems such as emphysema and asthma.

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 led the agency to craft the scaled-back proposal now under consideration.


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