In The Pipeline: Banning fire rings is overreach

I did something this week I haven't done in ages. I signed a petition. For a variety of reasons, it's normally not something I do, but when I heard that there was a movement to remove all fire rings from Southern California beaches, I could not resist.

Have you heard? South Coast Air Quality Management District has proposed amendments to rule 444 that would result in the removal of all Southern California beach fire rings. The issue cropped up several years ago and recently hit a fever pitch down in Newport when some locals who live by the beach decided they'd had enough of fire rings. The smoke irritated them.

Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman sent a strongly worded letter to the organization last week. It began, "I am writing in strong opposition to the amendment of Rule 444 to add beaches to the list of prohibited areas for open fire burning. Doing so will diminish the passive and affordable recreational opportunities for millions and greatly impact our local economy."

Boardman went on to make a number of salient points regarding the economy. She also addressed the emotional attachment many locals have to the fire rings (which have been here more than 60 years) and, just as important, talked about the fact that the fire rings at Huntington Beach, unlike Newport and other cities, are in most cases located far enough from homes so that the smoke typically does not play a major part in residents' lives.

In the L.A Times last week, Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said this: "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that smoke is unhealthy and contains many harmful pollutants — some of which can cause cancer. And it doesn't take a costly scientific study to tell you that dozens of these fires in close proximity create very unhealthy levels of smoke for anyone near them, and for residents downwind."

But Mr. Atwood, don't you think it would take some sort of study to back up your noticeably biased argument that the smoke levels are automatically considered to be unhealthy to the point of requiring a ban? What is your methodology? Do you factor in wind? Distance from homes? Vastness of beach? How can you treat all beachside cities as if they are the same? You don't think that before banning all fire rings in all Southern California cities, you owe the public at least a trace of evidence that they are really causing any sort of measurable harm? And what of the economic losses?

Funny how that doesn't seem to come up in any your organization's arguments.

I understand that the smoke may bother some and that there are very real medical issues when people get close to a fire. So then why not just avoid them? Beach fires, for the most part, are a nighttime activity. So why would people even gather at the beach at night if not to enjoy a fire? And we have lots of beach, including plenty of it where there are no fire rings.

My hunch is that first it will be the fire rings at the beach. Then the ones in backyards. Then it will be barbecues. Because this is how it starts, this sort of encroachment we're seeing all over the country today with bureaucrats deciding what is right for us, trying to impede life's little pleasures and freedoms, one step at a time.

Me, I adore the wild smell of the roaring fires dotting the coast in the summer night when I drive down Pacific Coast Highway, windows down and cool wind blowing. Comingled with hot dogs, marshmallows and the salt in the air, that sweet scent for me is one of life's great aromatic ecstasies (rivaled only by the one-two olfactory punch of cigars and beer in the old Yankee Stadium). So yes, I like rich, pungent scents that evoke place — especially when that place is the beach. If you want to convince me those things are bad, prove it with facts, not emotion.

And to be huddled around a fire like that with family and friends goes beyond just beach-town ritual. It is like a sacred tribal gathering — primal and powerful. It is how our culture evolved. Cooking your food over fire. Huddling with those you love. Basking in the glow and warmth while an ocean thunders nearby. In an increasingly sterile world, one micromanaged and oppressed by growing interference, coastal fire rings provide a refreshing, rugged dose of "leave us the heck alone."

Opponents of fire rings point out that some people burn their garbage, chemically treated wood and other harmful items. They are right. People who do that are irresponsible and efforts should be made to stop them. The city may need to invest in those efforts. But banning fire rings because of the actions of a few fools is, in my view, foolish as well.

For those who don't care for the fire pits, I respect your point of view. But even though you don't like them, do you really want them banned? What happens when something you love is banned by these same officials? Are you really for banning things that you merely perceive as a nuisance or irritation? Again, where is the evidence to support the draconian measures we are being threatened with? Does that matter at all?

What do you think of all this?

To sign the petition, click here. If you would like to take additional action, attend the public meeting at AQMD Headquarters at 9 a.m. Thursday. AQMD headquarters is at 21865 Copley Drive, Diamond Bar.


Student Writing Competition

The annual In The Pipeline Student Writing Competition is now underway. If you're a high school student who lives in Huntington Beach or Fountain Valley and you'd like to participate, here's the assignment: In 600 words or less, write a story that reveals something unique and original about a person, place or thing in the city where you live.

Photographs are fine but not mandatory. What is important is telling a good story that will leave the reader feeling better for having experienced it. The deadline is April 19 and you can email entries directly to me at Your work will be published here in the paper, I will sign one of my books for you, and you and a guest will be invited to the ever-amazing Taste of Huntington Beach food festival on April 28. I will be appearing there. 

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter: @chrisepting or follow his column at

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