By Vince Echavaria
An initiative by air quality regulators to ban fire pits along beaches in Los Angeles and Orange counties has been rejected by the L.A. Board of Supervisors.
The county governing board voted June 4 to support a plan to instead allow local jurisdictions to regulate the fire rings on their beaches. The board additionally asked to send a letter to the South Coast Air Quality Management District expressing its support for beach fire rings and local control on the issue.
In his motion to the board, Supervisor Don Knabe, who represents the Playa del Rey area, called beach bonfires a low cost recreational pastime that generates a significant portion of the annual parking revenue at Dockweiler State Beach.
The AQMD staff have recommended 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.
The move came 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.
The proposed removal of the bonfire pits on Orange County beaches 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.
Knabe pointed to the longtime popularity of the campfires at Dockweiler, saying they appeal to the wide and diverse population that Los Angeles County serves. “In fact, when the county took over operation of Dockweiler State Beach in 1975, the fire rings were already there and to this day remain,” he said.
Carol Baker, spokeswoman for the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, has noted that people come to the Playa del Rey beach very early in the morning to secure a space and the rings have been a popular draw.
At Dockweiler, parking fees collected after 4 p.m. – when many of the bonfire users arrive – equate to as much as 43 percent of its annual parking lot revenue, or about $570,000, according to Knabe. 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.
While the AQMD board is not scheduled to consider the countywide ban until July 12, Knabe said he wanted to allow the L.A. County board to participate in the debate.
The proposed ban on open burning does not require the approval of supervisors, as the AQMD has jurisdiction for regulating air pollutants and specifically, open burning, said Sam Atwood, air quality district spokesman.
Atwood said the board will take into account the supervisors’ decision, as well as the input that has been received over the last several months from the public in writing and at hearings. He acknowledged that several other county and local jurisdictions have already taken actions in opposition to the recommended countywide ban on fire pits.
“We’re aware that this is a concern for these local jurisdictions, and we’ve announced… we are considering some alternatives to an outright and complete ban for Orange and L.A. counties,” Atwood said.
Some possible alternatives include requiring a minimum buffer distance between the fire pits and residences or businesses, as well as a limit on the density of rings, or distance between them, along the beach, Atwood said.
Opponents to the countywide ban point out that Dockweiler has a distinction with the Newport situation because it is not in a residential area. Atwood said the proposed minimum buffer distance could be in place to address such a distinction at Dockweiler.
Knabe’s motion states that AQMD staff’s arguments for health risks associated with the beach bonfires have not been widely understood. He argued that those who do not wish to be exposed to potential health impacts can simply visit another beach without fires.
“Let’s not be hasty in legislating away something that can be voluntarily avoided or, in contrast, embraced,” the supervisor said.
The air quality district stated on its website that it has operated air monitors at Corona del Mar, Huntington Beach and Dockweiler since late March. Tests were conducted for forms of particulate matter as well as black carbon and ultrafine particles, to assess the potential for human exposure to wood smoke from beach fires.
In parking lots near beach fire pits, fine particulate pollution concentrations from wood smoke were as much as 10 times higher than typical background levels, the studies found. In nearby residential areas, particulate concentrations were up to three times higher than background levels, studies show.
Knabe acknowledged that there are areas like Newport Beach where residents are particularly impacted due to their proximity to the fires, and he knows that some municipalities are determined to regulate the issue.
“Accordingly, I believe an appropriate compromise is to allow local jurisdictions to regulate or prohibit beach fire rings as they see fit. This is the approach Newport Beach, which initiated the discussion in the first place, has adopted and one which I believe we, too, should endorse,” Knabe suggested.
In regards to regulations on a jurisdictional, rather than countywide, basis, Atwood said that air quality regulators want to ensure that whatever law is enacted will protect public health.
“AQMD’s mission is to protect public health from air pollution so we have to make sure that we’re not simply leaving it up to cities to do whatever they want to do; while that’s fine, we have to make sure that public health is being protected at the same time,” he said.