Fire rings forum burns in Newport

Proponents and opponents of the much debated beach fire rings aired their feelings about the matter before six South Coast Air Quality Management District staff members Thursday night.

The debate wasn't unlike the back and forth that has been going on for the past few months between those who say the fire pits are a health hazard and those who defend them as a California tradition. It was the AQMD's second public hearing as it gathers information in preparation for a July 12 vote on a proposal that would deliver a mix of regulatory and local control over the wood-burning pits.

Newport Beach wants to remove its 60 fire rings, while Huntington Beach is holding tight to its hundreds of fire pits.

An assemblyman, a congressional aide, city officials and numerous residents from Newport and Huntington Beach exchanged comments at the Hyatt Regency.

Another public hearing will be held in El Segundo on Friday at the Embassy Suites hotel.

AQMD board member and Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido made a late appearance Thursday, but didn't leave without making a statement of his own.

"I've made it very clear that I want to save as many fire pits as I can," Pulido said. "I think they're a part of the Southern California culture.… At this point, I think we're heading toward a sound compromise, but I do want more input from everybody."

The compromise the Santa Ana mayor referred to was the AQMD's proposed amendments to its Rule 444, which regulates open-air burning devices. If approved by Pulido and the rest of the AQMD board, the rule would also cover beach fire rings.

On Thursday, about 30 of the roughly 120 in attendance spoke. More Newport residents were represented than at the May hearing at Huntington Beach City Hall, when less than a half dozen showed up.

Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Matthew Harper and Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer both voiced their desire to keep the rings.

"Your job is to make the air clean," Righeimer told AQMD staff members. "What's happening here is that you're going a bridge too far. You're going to the point where we're going to lose the backing of the public."

Earlier in the month, California legislators adopted a non-binding resolution written by Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach).

Signed by 59 other cosigners, Assembly Concurrent Resolution 52 describes the fire rings' traditional and cultural significance to the state.

Allen was in attendance Thursday and read his resolution to AQMD staff members and the audience.

"Very simply, we reject all of the AQMD's recommendations. Our message is loud, it is clear: Our bonfire rings are here to stay," he said, followed by loud applause from the audience while others looked at the assemblyman without emotion.

Kathleen Staunton, the district director and representative for Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), strongly emphasized on his behalf that the fire ring issue shouldn't be handled by the AQMD.

An earlier version of this story had the wrong last name for Kathleen Staunton.

"Congressman Dana Rohrabacher would say that this is not your business," Staunton said. "It is not your business to come in here and tell us how to go about our business living our lives.… Whether it's 25 feet or 2,500 feet, whether they're 20 feet apart or 200 feet apart, Congressman Rohrabacher would say this is not your business.

"This is the business of Huntington Beach. This is the business of Newport Beach. This is the business of Corona. This is the business of the localities, where people live, pay their taxes, mind their own business and get on with their lives."

AQMD proposed the update to its Rule 444 on June 6, backing off from an initial suggestion that it might ban all fire rings in the state.

Among the proposed changes to the rule are more local control over the rings and establishing a buffer zone between fire rings and homes.

Under the latest draft, fire rings would need to be at least 700 feet away from a residence, 100 feet away from each other or 50 feet apart if a city has 15 or fewer rings within its boundaries.

The changes to the rule and the fate of the open-air burning devices will be considered at a special meeting July 12. Should district board members agree to the changes, the amendments would not go into effect until March 1, 2014.

Those against the rings said they've seen too many people burning items other than wood in the pits. Newport resident Charlie Farrell said he's smelled plastic being burned.

"Until we as human beings can find a safe way to cook food on the beach without creating highly toxic plumes of black smoke dangerous to human health, the burn pits should be removed," he said Thursday.

Huntington Beach resident Julie Sandercock, who spoke at the first public hearing in May, was concerned about not just her health, but also for the health of her child.

"It's your responsibility to protect the public's health and environment," she said. "I feel like you've caved to the pressure of politics and politicians when I see the proposal. We don't live 700 feet away from the fire pits, but our baby's bedroom smells like fire pits."

Corona del Mar couple Frank and Barbara Peters don't like the compromise AQMD staff members have drawn up. Barbara wants AQMD to make the decision on the fire rings based on the scientific facts, not their popularity and tradition, she said.

Frank believes the concentration of the pits is still too high.

"You gentlemen do have a tough job," he said.

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