Air regulators may compromise with cities on beach bonfire ban
Regional air quality regulators floated a compromise this week in the face of fierce debate over the controversial proposed ban of beach fire rings.
An updated rule change proposal released Thursday night by the South Coast Air Quality Management District softens an earlier iteration of the proposed rule, which would have banned wood-burning fire rings from beaches in Orange and Los Angeles counties outright.
The district board voted Friday morning to consider the issue at a special meeting July 12.
The revised proposal would allow wood-burning fire rings that are at least 700 feet from the closest homes, at least 100 feet from each other or at least 50 feet apart from each other if there are 15 or fewer fire rings within a city’s boundaries.
And — in a coup for Newport Beach and Orange County officials, who advocated for greater local control in the issue — the new proposal would allow individual counties or cities to remove their own fire rings if they find that they constitute a nuisance, as defined by state code.
District spokesman Sam Atwood said counties and cities already had the authority to declare exposure to wood smoke a nuisance, but the revised rule would prevent “any other government body from being able to supercede” a fire pit ban.
That includes the California Coastal Commission, which put off ruling on whether or not to approve the city of Newport Beach’s application to remove its fire rings. Discussion about that application was what spurred the AQMD to take up the issue.
The new proposal would also make beach fires subject to the same air quality threshold as “no-burn days” that restrict residential fireplaces, typically during the winter in inland areas.
Atwood said that in beach areas, where breezes dissipate particulate matter, “it’s not expected to be a frequent occurrence.” Last winter, he said, one day would have qualified as a no-burn day at the beach.
Charcoal barbecues and propane fires would be allowed on beaches under the revised proposal, which defines beaches as “a public coastal area marked by an accumulation of sand"—so fire pits at campsites close to beaches, like ones at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point, would be exempt from the rule.
The district has long posited propane fires as an alternative to more hazardous wood-burning ones, Atwood said, and staff members have been working with a city on a pilot program, which would be funded by the AQMD.
While Newport Beach officials have pushed to remove its fire rings because they pose a health risk to residents living nearby, Huntington Beach officials have led a charge to save the bonfires, which they say are a rich Southern California tradition — not to mention a major draw for tourists.
Since the district proposed the ban in late March, state lawmakers, local officials and residents throughout both counties have weighed in on the debate over the fire rings, which, over the course of the debate, have been likened to apple pie, carpet bombing in Vietnam and magic.
Friday morning, reactions were mixed to the new proposal.
Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry said in a statement that the city is happy with the compromise.
“We are pleased that the AQMD has developed a rule with the flexibility to accommodate both the coastal cities that wish to keep all of their fire rings and Newport Beach that desires to address the health and quality of life concerns of our residents,” he said.
But Huntington Beach officials were concerned that the city — which has hundreds of fire rings, many closer together than the 100-foot buffer would allow — could still lose a chunk of its bonfires.
Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Matthew Harper said he would support an amendment that wouldn’t remove any of the rings in the city. He plans to be at a June 13 public hearing in Newport Beach.
“These bureaucrats can’t control themselves with wanting to micromanage our lives,” he said. “Can’t we just enjoy the fire rings with friends and family without worrying about these people coming after us?”
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