Charcoal may replace wood in fire rings

Charcoal may be the only thing burning in Newport Beach fire rings come March 1.

Trapped between two regulatory agencies, the Newport Beach City Council is taking steps toward regulating what's allowed to be burned in the city's fire pits, where everything from Christmas trees to old couch cushions have been known to fuel flames even though wood is preferred.

The measure has been introduced as the city prepares to enact a long-term fire pit plan and aims to protect itself from being fined before that plan goes into place.

Under a new ordinance, which received initial council approval Tuesday and will return for a second vote Feb. 11, only natural firewood, low-emission logs, natural gas and charcoal could be lit in any of the 60 beachside pits.

The city manager would also gain authority to further limit materials to those mandated by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, whose new fire pit requirements, included in what is known as Rule 444, go into effect March 1.

Upon that date, charcoal would probably be the only substance allowed. The AQMD considers that a cleaner-burning substance than wood, which can only be burned under Rule 444 if the fire rings are moved farther apart.

Newport plans to move the rings, giving it a wider array of burning matter to choose from.

Council members voted in November to reduce the number of wood-burning fire rings and to put more space between the remaining ones.

But the rings cannot be rearranged just yet.

Here's the catch: Moving the pits requires permission from the California Coastal Commission, which is not expected until the summer or fall, according to a city staff report.

Meanwhile, the city faces possible fines from the AQMD if Rule 444 requirements for greater space or cleaner fuel are not met by March 1.

"So we are caught between two state regulatory agencies with conflicting purposes, with conflicting goals, trying to do conflicting things," noted councilman Keith Curry, implying the council had no choice but to pass the ordinance. "Charcoal makes nobody happy. It doesn't make me happy. I can't imagine it makes anybody happy."

State legislation that would essentially negate the AQMD regulations is also pending, but that would not go into effect until January 2015, Curry noted.

Park patrol, code enforcement and police are likely to collaborate to enforce the material limitations, City Manager Dave Kiff said.

Councilwoman Nancy Gardner's motion to remove natural firewood from the ordinance failed to receive a second motion, as did Councilwoman Leslie Daigle's suggestion to back out of the issue altogether.

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