Newport council compromises on fire rings

Newport Beach City Council members dealt with the most recent round in the ongoing fire ring debate Tuesday by striking not a match but a compromise.

Aware of mounting health concerns related to wood smoke, council members voted unanimously to reduce the 60 wood-fueled fire rings on the city's beaches to 27. With council member Leslie Daigle absent, they also cleared the way for their possible participation in a pilot program with the South Coast Air Quality Management District to test the use of new rings to be fueled by natural gas.

"Is it perfect for either side? No," said council member Nancy Gardner of the decisions, "but I think it does improve the health aspects."

During the meeting, residents rehashed complaints about the stench and smoke caused by burning wood, saying pallets and other miscellaneous items were often burned as well. They complained of needing to close their windows and then sweltering in the heat as they tried to prevent their homes from filling with the bad air.

"The biggest risk to my health," said Frank Peters, an avid bicyclist, "is something I can't do anything about."

While Peters called for the complete removal of the rings, others disputed that wood smoke damages health at all. Mayor Keith Curry likened such resistance to arguments by those who deny the need for motorcyclists to wear helmets or drivers to put on seatbelts in their cars.

"This is the night where we sort of come together around the family dinner table," Curry said at the outset of the conversation, pleading with those present to make a collective decision for the community's health.

Council members agreed that the 27 wood-fueled rings in Big Corona would be reduced to 12 and the 33 near the Balboa Pier to 15. These rings will be more heavily patrolled, perhaps by an outside organization, and only clean-burning fuels will be allowed.

"I think everybody here is after the same thing. They don't like the smoke," said Randy Poulson of Extreme Green Products and Structures. He placed a log of "clean flame" on the lectern for council members to consider as an alternative fuel source for the wood-burning pits. "This is the new way of stopping all of this."

The fire pits that remain will be placed 50 feet apart, even if this distance may not quite be in accordance with new rules voted into effect by the South Coast Air Quality Management District in July.

Although those rules permit fire rings to be 50 feet apart if there are fewer than 15 rings in a "contiguous beach area," a letter from the AQMD received by the city said that the Balboa Pier and Big Corona areas – though separated by the harbor entrance – would likely be considered part of the same area and so would require a larger distance, City Manager David Kiff said.

Meanwhile, Kiff said a letter from the California Coastal Commission said that agency would prefer there be no net loss to the number of fire rings.

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