In the Pipeline: Assemblyman pushes back to protect fire rings

When I spoke to Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) a few days ago, he was cautiously optimistic that the bipartisan Assembly Bill 1102, which he co-authored with Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), would clear its first hurdle this week.

It did. The bill was approved Monday by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee and will move on to the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Jan. 22.

As described by Allen, AB 1102 would "protect the Southern California tradition of beach bonfires by requiring the South Coast Air Quality Management District to work with local cities and other coastal oversight agencies to prove that there will be no loss of beach access or harm to local economies and that any environmental concerns are addressed before a city can remove the fire rings from the beaches in Orange and Los Angeles counties."

Since the AQMD announced its plans last year to ban fire rings in Southern California, Allen has been at the political forefront, battling an "impenetrable and unaccountable" organization.

That's why he says this bill is so important. Even though the AQMD appeared to back off in response to Huntington Beach's glorious opposition, it still managed to crack the door a bit with its new Rule 444, which would go into effect March 1, allowing the agency marginal control of where fire rings are placed in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Allen, like many of us who became heavily involved in this battle, seems quite aware that the AQMD will probably come back when things quiet down to try to achieve its initial goals.

We know from board members' own words that the overarching goal is to essentially eliminate all wood-burning fire pits, with a master plan of implementing propane and natural gas lines at the beach.

"We can't let all this happen simply because a handful of wealthy Newport Beach property owners want these things gone, and so that's why we have to work so hard," Allen told me. "This is just pure politics. It's just about control.

"Here you have a massive state agency illustrating what it's like when the creep of big government begins to take over. That's why it's time to stand up. This is a very straightforward bill. It's a bipartisan bill and something that essentially the entire community seems to support."

And Allen, like many of us, does not buy AQMD's "science" argument. The air at our beaches has not been cleaner in any of our lifetimes, while the fire pits have never been more popular.

And if you've noticed the increasing number of no-burn days this winter issued by the AQMD, that's because earlier this year it quietly lowered the air-quality standards that trigger such announcements. Personally, my hunch is that's the way it plans to get rid of the fire pits.

Once the agency begins declaring no-burn weeks and then no-burn months, it won't matter if the fire pits are legal because no burning will be allowed. That's another reason I am so supportive of AB 1102 — it stops the AQMD in its tracks.

Allen also believes that the motives of those few who want to ban fire rings are less about smoke and more about keeping people off the beaches.

His bill serves to remind people that the beaches of Southern California are for all of us, not just the privileged few.

On Monday, I listened online as the bill cleared its first important hurdle by being passed out of a legislative committee in Sacramento. Allen and Quirk-Silva were joined by Huntington Beach Councilman Joe Carcio and representatives from groups supporting the bill.

On a decisive and sweeping 7-0 vote, with two abstentions, 1102 achieved bipartisan support of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources. There is great momentum now for this bill, which could find itself in the next few weeks on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown.

Allen's office has created a short video that frames the issue and shows how to voice your support. I appear in the video, as do other local residents involved in the fight. You can find it here.

There was a revealing moment at the meeting Monday when a Newport Beach resident, who supports the ban, spoke. Frank Peters, a beachfront property owner, staunchly attends all of these meetings with his wife.

After mentioning what a nuisance the smoke is to him, he also mentioned the "noise."

Fire pits don't make noise. People make noise. And with that single word, I think we got an honest glimpse of what is driving some of the fire pit opposition. As Allen pointed out, he thinks this is as much about wanting the beaches clear of people, who will certainly go away at night if the fire pits are gone. See the connection?

Thankfully, the beaches are for everyone. As is AB 1102.

Go get 'em, Travis.

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 http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.

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