By Vince Echavaria
What began as a push by a city in Orange County to remove its popular beach bonfire pits has begun to drift toward other areas where open burning has been a cherished tradition, including Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey.
Flames from the dozens of fire pits dotting Dockweiler are visible to motorists traveling along scenic Vista del Mar in the evening, and the smell from grills and logs burning in the beach’s fire rings is a common scent for cyclists and pedestrians passing through the stretch of sand on the bike path.
Visitors come from throughout the region and some arrive hours early to lay claim to a bonfire pit where their friends or family members can later join them for a nighttime gathering around the flames with the sound of waves crashing in the background.
At Dockweiler and other Southern California beaches, this has been an activity experienced by generations of families, or for others, a new way to enjoy the beach lifestyle.
But the opportunity to light bonfires could be extinguished under a proposal by staff of the South Coast Air Quality Management District to ban open burning on all beaches in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The AQMD staff recommended last month that an amendment be made to an existing district rule that would outlaw open burning on L.A. and Orange county beaches year-round as a way to protect beachgoers and residents living nearby from the effects of breathing in wood smoke and other materials burned in the pits.
“(Staff) is looking at prohibiting open fires on beaches to protect the health of those who live and work near the beaches as well as those who go to the beach,” said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the Air Quality Management District. “When you think about it, most, if not all beaches in the counties prohibit cigarette smoking on the beaches for what are now obvious health reasons, so why does it make sense to allow bonfires, which contain many of the same pollutants, to continue?”
The proposal comes after the city of Newport Beach sought to remove a total of 60 of its fire rings from the beach near the Balboa Pier and on Corona del Mar State Beach due to concerns from residents living near the beaches about potential health impacts from having wood smoke in the air throughout the evening. California Coastal Commission staff have recommended against the Newport Beach request arguing that the public should have access to lower cost visitor and recreational beach facilities like the fire pits.
“Staff is recommending denial because removal of the fire rings would deny the public access to this popular form of lower cost public recreation,” they wrote in their report.
The commission decided last month to delay the hearing on the Newport Beach motion until June, knowing that the AQMD is seeking to amend its longstanding regulations on open burning, said Jeff Rabin, analyst with the Coastal Commission’s South Coast District office.
The AQMD held a community meeting March 28 to get some feedback from the public on the countywide bonfire prohibition and is scheduled to consider the issue at its May 3 meeting. The proposed removal of the fire rings in Newport Beach has generated an outcry from many beach visitors who say that they have been taking part in the gatherings for years and in some cases, they have been a family tradition for generations. An online petition to “stop the removal of 60 fire rings at Big Corona State Beach and Balboa” has received nearly 6,600 supporters and a Facebook group has been created for those seeking to restore the rings.
“Bonfires in the pits on summer nights are what make Southern California… It brings people together in ways unique to California. Many a nights have been spent around a bonfire in Newport for everything from church gatherings to birthdays to nights where you just need to escape reality. Bonfires are what make the beach experience,” Shannon Pooler of Fullerton stated on the petition.
Of the beaches in L.A. County, Dockweiler, which has approximately 60 rings in place, appears to be the principal area that would be most affected by the AQMD ban, Rabin noted. Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro has a fewer number of bonfire spaces and is operated by the city of Los Angeles.
Carol Baker, spokeswoman for the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, said the department does not comment on policy matters and would abide by the rules set by the policymakers, but she noted that the Playa del Rey beach’s pits are a big attraction.
“We definitely have individuals who come very early in the morning to secure a ring, meaning they’re there all day, and usually have a number of friends or family members join them. They’re definitely a popular draw at that beach,” Baker said.
Baker and others have pointed out that while Dockweiler has a very popular bonfire area, the beach has a distinction with the Newport situation because it is not in a residential area. “There are no residents in close proximity to Dockweiler so we don’t have the same issues that Newport Beach has,” she said.
Asked about the need to restrict the use of fire spaces when visitors are typically exposed to smoke for only hours at a time, Atwood said that residents living nearby could be exposed to fairly heavy smoke for several hours of the day especially during the busy summer time. He noted that cigarette smoking was banned on beaches primarily due to the effects of second-hand smoke.
“When we study the proposal more we will have a better understanding of what the risks are,” he said.
Another concern, Atwood said, is the non-wood materials that tend to get thrown into the flames like plastic, rubber and construction debris that could create harmful pollutants when burned. Although Dockweiler is not situated near homes, a ban on open beach burning would help protect the health of visitors to that part of the beach, Atwood suggested.
Though the AQMD and Newport Beach have raised the issue of health impacts, Coastal Commission staff argued that the city has conducted no air quality monitoring of the beaches where the rings are and has not given enough consideration to potential mitigation measures.
“Commission staff does not dispute that some individuals can have adverse health effects from wood smoke. However, the city has not demonstrated that the wood smoke from the city’s beach fire rings are directly responsible for a public health problem,” staff wrote.
The commission has not taken a position on the countywide ban proposal and is analyzing the issue, Rabin said.
In Huntington Beach, which has nearly three times as many fire pits as Dockweiler, the visitors bureau conducted a study finding that a ban on the beach activity could lead to an estimated loss of $1 million in annual parking revenue to the city. Baker said that Beaches and Harbors would need to conduct a parking revenue analysis to determine the potential loss related to the Dockweiler bonfires.
If the countywide bans were to take effect, Atwood stressed that they would not alter the beach lifestyle that is synonymous with California and there are many other forms of recreation that would remain for the public’s enjoyment.
“In general, Southern California beach culture is going to remain a very, very iconic element of this region that’s known around the world,” he said. “People are still going to be able to go to the beach and enjoy the beautiful, natural environment, and in fact it’ll be enhanced by the fact that the air will be that much cleaner.”