O.C. supervisors oppose proposed ban on fire rings

The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday formally opposed a call by air-quality regulators to snuff out beach bonfires in much of Southern California.

Supervisors urged the South Coast Air Quality Managment District to drop a proposed ban on beach-side fire pits in Orange and Los Angeles counties and instead consider a more localized approach that considers factors in each community, such as the fires’ proximity to residents.

Citing health and environmental problems associated with burning wood, the Newport Beach City Council wants the state to let it remove fire rings in Corona del Mar and other areas. Adjacent Huntington Beach, however, wants to maintain the tradition on its shoreline. The AQMD board is expected to rule on the ban June 7.

Supervisor John Moorlach, who represents Newport Beach on the board, doesn’t want “a one-size-fits-all solution,” which would ignore “geographical differences.”

“I believe and [Supervisor Patricia Bates] believes it’s a local issue,” Moorlach said. “I think it’s great this board is taking a policy that each city take a position that fits its community, and encouraging the AQMD not to tread further.”

The vote was unanimous, with Board Chairman Shawn Nelson abstaining, because he represents Orange County on the AQMD board.

Orange County operates 11 fire rings at two beaches: Aliso Beach in Laguna Beach, which has seven fire rings, and Capistrano Beach, which has four.

The Board of Supervisors has no formal authority over city or state beaches, including those in Newport and Huntington, but the supervisors’ vote saw the board wading into a ballooning regional discussion that could eventually have implications statewide.

A staff report for this week’s meeting recommended that the board oppose the ban, and instead, support “an option that provides greater flexibility” for cities to determine whether or not wood smoke generated by the fires poses enough of a health risk to justify removing the rings on their own stretches of coast.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer said at first that supporting what could end up a patchwork set of open beach burning rules didn’t go far enough in protecting what he called a “sacred” part of “our American fabric, our California fabric” — one that he said conjured memories of first kisses and apple pie.

“I’m generally a local control kind of person, but in this case, it’d be like saying, ‘Locals, you don’t have to fly the flag if you want to,’” he said, adding that those who live close to the fire rings would have been aware of the proximity of the bonfires when they moved in.

Ultimately, however, Spitzer voted with the rest of the board, excluding Nelson.

While Nelson said he didn’t think it would be appropriate to vote because of his AQMD position, he noted that the proposed ban “has nothing to do with” the group’s overarching plan to bring the region into compliance with federal air quality regulations, which is the district’s primary mission.

Nevertheless, he said the AQMD staff members were working to develop a possible gas or propane beach fire pilot program for Newport Beach, which asked the California Coastal Commission to get rid of its 60 fire rings, citing negative health impacts on beach neighbors.

“What I hope will come out of this is Newport Beach will be provided some alternatives,” that will be appealing, “if they’re sincere that their desire is not to get certain undesirables off the beach, but to improve air quality,” Nelson said. “I think the parties are here in Orange County that can offer some creative solutions.”

The AQMD took up the fire rings issue after Newport made its request to take out fire rings near the Balboa Pier and at Corona del Mar State Beach.

The proposed ban on open burning on all beaches within the district’s jurisdiction sparked a new flurry of debate — and controversy.

The city of Huntington Beach, with the support of a long line of residents, has cited the tourist dollars its roughly 500 fire rings bring and has pleaded with the district to consider a more localized rule.

That approach is one that garnered support from Newport Beach officials, who have said that each community’s situation is different.

The debate has also grabbed the attention of state legislators.

Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) has taken up the preservation of Huntington’s fire rings.

He recently submitted a resolution enshrining fire pits’ place in beach lifestyles.

“As a resident of Huntington Beach and a surfer, I am honored to commemorate California’s beaches and access to those beaches,” he said in a statement. “Activities such as beach bonfires are a beloved pastime that is a safe and inexpensive recreational activity enjoyed by all the members of our community.”

Allen is also hosting a community beach bonfire Sunday to shed more light on the issue, according to a news release.

Orange County legislators Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) and Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine), too, have spoken out against the ban, and have questioned the validity of some in favor of enacting it.

In a letter, they called for the resignation of AQMD Chairman William Burke, saying that his simultaneous service as a coastal commissioner posed a conflict of interest.

Burke has been a vocal proponent of the ban; at a recent meeting, he drew criticism by comparing smoke from Newport Beach’s fire rings to “carpet bombing” in Vietnam.

In a surprise move, Burke resigned from the Coastal Commission and remains in place on the AQMD board.