Commission: Snuff out fire rings

After a 90-minute hearing, a 4 to 3 vote was taken to recommend removing fire pits.

A battle over beachside bonfires — a topic considered too hot to handle for Newport Beach city leaders just a few years ago — moved a step closer to a permanent ban at this week's Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission meeting

After a hearing that lasted about 90 minutes, commissioners voted 4 to 3 to ask the City Council to remove the city's 60 rings.

Before the vote, 19 members of the public spoke against the fire rings, describing greasy, soot-covered patios, toxic fumes, and unruly and sometimes law-breaking beach visitors.

"This is a big problem," said Jack Larson of Corona del Mar. "It's also hazardous to our houses. I've had burning embers on our patio."

"Our house is full of smoke all the time," said Lisa Vallejo, also of Corona del Mar. "The house smells of barbecue. It's disgusting. I love a roasted marshmallow, too, but it's not worth it."

"It's a wonderful experience I've enjoyed many times, but I feel the cost is just too high," said Frank Peters of Corona del Mar, who lives near Big Corona State Beach.

No one spoke in favor of the fire rings.

The commissioners could have voted to do nothing, to ban all rings or to impose other restrictions.

Two commissioners argued that the group was rushing the process, and that perhaps other options or solutions should be considered.

Commissioner Roy Englebrecht said the city could lose revenue from parking and concessions if beach visitors skip Newport Beach because fire rings are removed. He suggested that staff explore cleaner options, such as converting the fire pits to gas and implementing a system that requires reservations and fees.

"We should not throw the baby — the fire rings — out with the bath water — the smoke," he said. "What we're trying to do is preserve memories ... We must find a way…"

Several audience members interrupted the hearing, asking for a chance to respond. One woman called out that she didn't understand who the commissioner was before Chairman Phillip Luger called for order.

Commissioner Tom Anderson said he thought scientific studies should be conducted to prove that the smoke was dangerous and indeed was causing the soot and mess described by neighbors.

Years ago, he said, neighbors near John Wayne Airport believed soot on their homes was caused by planes, but in fact studies showed it was mostly from rubber from roadways.

"I think this is just going to end up in studies," he said. "This is our first stab at it. This is a big deal."

Commissioner Kathy Hamilton of Corona del Mar said she was concerned about injuries, particularly children who are burned when they step or fall into a fire ring.

Commissioner Ron Cole moved to recommend to the council that all rings be banned. Englebrecht, Anderson and Commissioner Marie Marston voted no while Lugar, Hamilton, Cole and Jack Tingley voted yes.

One Corona del Mar resident who watched the hearing shook his head after the vote.

"It was all pre-determined," he said. "Completely railroaded."

Others expressed relief at the victory.

"This is good," said Justin Edson of Corona del Mar, who had described fire ring users lighting paper bags on fire and letting them sail through the sky.

The council will discuss the suggested fire ring ban at a future meeting, but staff would have to obtain a California Coastal Commission permit before removing any rings. The rings are at least 60 years old, said Laura Detweiler, Newport Beach recreation and senior services director. Big Corona State Beach has 27 rings, while the rest are near the Balboa Pier.

The City Council discussed possibly removing beach fire rings in 2009 but tabled the issue because it was taking too much staff time at a point when budget constraints were becoming a serious city issue. However, in September, Mayor Nancy Gardner suggested that the parks commission study the issue again, partly because of a claim filed against Huntington Beach after a boy was burned at a fire ring there.

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