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Commentary: Say it isn’t so, but Newport Beach’s fire rings must go

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And in smog-choked Southern California, where there’s both smoke and fire, there’s trouble.

The latest front in Californians’ love-hate relationship with fire and smoke is in Newport Beach. Seems the city wants to do away with its 60 beach fire rings. You know, the ones beachgoers can’t get enough of. The ones people have been using for decades. The ones that practically scream “California dreaming.”

But as my colleague Mike Anton reported March 12, Newport Beach officials and some beachfront homeowners have a different take. They say life next to the fire rings is like living next to an incinerator.

And so the city is asking the California Coastal Commission for permission to remove them.


On the “save the fire rings” side, Anton quotes David Ruiz, 25, who lives near some of the fire rings and who started an online petition last year to save them that’s drawn 6,000 signatures:

“They’re trying to dissuade individuals from out of town from coming to their beach. Unless you purchased your house prior to 1940, you knew what you were getting into. Bonfires and summer grilling at the beach — it goes along with the territory.”

Not so fast, says Daniel J. Leonard, fire ring opponent and president of one beachfront homeowners association, who wrote the Coastal Commission:

“It is just plain unhealthy. Now is the time to clean our air, not only for local residents but also for all people enjoying the beaches.”


The problem is, they’re both right.

Ruiz’s charge of NIMBYism is undoubtedly true of some of the homeowners. As sure as quaint beachfront cottages have given way to multimillion-dollar oceanside estates, what was once a cherished tradition is now just a local nuisance to those who can afford the ultimate California lifestyle.

Yet air quality in California still isn’t what it should be. And we are learning more and more about just how dangerous common sources of pollution can be. Recall that just last month, UC Davis scientists studying air pollution particles in Fresno found that one of the most toxic sources was the backyard grill.

So it’s not that easy to dismiss the health concerns of those who live near the fire rings. Those using the rings are exposed for just hours, but those living nearby are exposed for months. In some ways, it’s the same sort of concern that led to the banning of smoking in bars; it wasn’t just the health of the patrons but that of the employees who were exposed to secondhand smoke.

Bottom line: Someone has to decide. And bottom line, though I hate to say it: Some of the fire rings have to go.

But it’s not all bad news. Even without the fire rings, the beach will remain, and the ocean, and those glorious dawns — and those fiery sunsets.

And that’s not so bad.

This piece by PAUL WHITEFIELD was originally published March 6 by the Los Angeles Times.