Newport enforces charcoal-only rule

A Newport Beach city department head believes she has a plan in place to prevent beachgoers from burning everything from wooden planks to pizza boxes in the city’s fire rings.

Laura Detweiler, director of the Recreation and Senior Services Department, says eight newly hired employees, plus some educational materials, will go a long way toward keeping visitors from using anything but charcoal in the fire pits at Corona del Mar State Beach and near the Balboa Pier.

The new staff includes five recreation leaders and three park patrol members, only one of whom is full-time, she said. They were brought on board using existing funding after restrictions on fire rings went into effect in March. Whether the workers stay now falls to the City Council to determine during its budget approval process.

Detweiler proposes using $147,000 from next year’s budget to continue paying for the added staff, who

greet visitors and explain the changes to the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Rule 444, which banned wood and other materials starting March 1.

Since then, the city has spent $13,000 on education efforts and the new staffing positions, Detweiler said.

Already, signs reading “charcoal only” hang on fences and traffic barricades. Staff has distributed information about the ban and the relative air-quality benefits of burning charcoal over wood.

The city even provides charcoal free of charge to weekend visitors who may be caught unaware.

“It’s gone pretty well,” Detweiler said. “We’re doing everything we can to get ready for the summer months.”

The rule was not enforced in Newport Beach until March 24, after Persian New Year and its annual tradition of jumping over bonfires had passed. The city didn’t want people arriving only with wood to be disappointed.

No citations have been issued, a trend the city hopes will continue, Detweiler said. First-time violations would draw a $100 fine.

Meanwhile, the city is working on a proposal to remove some of its 60 rings and spread the rest farther apart. Under Rule 444, this would allow for wood burning again.

The rule changes say fire rings in a “contiguous beach area” must be at least 100 feet apart from one another unless there are 15 or fewer. In that case, they must be at least 50 feet apart.

But until the city is cleared by state regulators to remove some rings and spread out the remainder, Newport Beach fire pits will feature only charcoal, which is considered cleaner-burning. Natural gas fire rings may eventually be installed as well.

City brochures soon to be printed will include warnings about wood smoke’s potential harm to children, carcinogenic nature and ability to aggravate heart disease.

They will also note that a $13 bag of lump charcoal will serve to provide warmth just as well. Flames are visible for up to an hour, while the charcoal can generate heat for up to three, providing for what a sample brochure calls “an equivalent experience to a wood fire” — just cleaner.