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Extinguishing a Tradition on Bay Area Beach

The National Park Service may prohibit bonfires for safety and environmental issues.

July 02, 2006|Lisa Leff | Associated Press Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — A dozen bonfires kiss the black expanse of sand like faint stars in the night sky. Small groups stand around the dancing flames, their laughter blending with the sighs of the waves, the rattle of ice chests and a guitar's occasional hum.

Where the uninitiated eye sees a sublime California experience, National Park Service Ranger Robert Mitsuyasu sees a nightly act of sacrilege on San Francisco's Ocean Beach.

Directing his flashlight beam toward 10 men and women gathered around an open blaze, he spots strike one -- a stash of beer. The pallets they're using for fuel -- a double no-no because of the nails and treated wood -- earn the stunned revelers strikes two and three.

"The night's over," Mitsuyasu announces as he excavates the bonfire's ashes with the toe of his boot. "You guys are going to pack up and take all this trash with you. Look at all these nails. It's ridiculous."

For as long as anyone can remember, building a fire on the beach has been one of the simple pleasures of life by the sea. But if the Park Service has its way, the tradition will soon be extinguished at Ocean Beach, the last stretch in San Francisco and one of the few beaches statewide where bonfires still burn legally.

The federal agency, which manages the beach as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, says it doesn't have enough rangers to handle the environmental and safety problems presented by the innocent-looking pastime.

"It's very disheartening to see the public treating their beaches this way," Mitsuyasu said.

Critics of the proposed ban say other agencies have found ways to strike a balance between the interests of fire builders and the natural landscape, with metal fire rings and strict rules about what can be burned.

The state Department of Parks and Recreation, which manages the majority of California's public beaches, banned bonfires on most of them in 1986, but there are still about 30 with concrete or metal fire pits for that purpose.

In Huntington Beach, the two main beaches have a total of 600 fire rings, which cut down on debris and make it easier to clean the beach in the morning. During the summer, the demand exceeds the supply, said Lon Graham, a lifeguard supervisor.

"There is something about standing around a campfire that is instinctively enjoyable, so to permit it is a good idea, but with some regulations involved," he said.

Sector Supt. Kirk Lingenfelter, who oversees state park beaches on the Santa Cruz County coast, considered banning bonfires a few years ago for the same reasons the National Park Service is thinking about it now. But the negative reaction was so strong that he decided to keep the fire rings.

"There was a fairly large groundswell in the community that holds fire rings very near and dear to its heart," he said.

On some nights, as many as 100 bonfires blaze along San Francisco's four-mile Ocean Beach.

As Mitsuyasu and two colleagues prepared to patrol it one recent night, the rangers predicted what they would find before setting foot on the sand.

Besides booze and pallets, they were on the lookout for other air-fouling items bonfire builders sometimes ignite: mattresses, painted fences, telephone poles, old furniture layered in varnish.

"If they think they might be able to burn it, people have tried to burn it," Ranger Matthew Harris said.

One of Mitsuyasu's pet peeves is when people extinguish the flames by covering them with sand instead of dousing them with water. The leftover embers can burn barefoot beachcombers the next day.

By the end of the night, the rangers found just one fire that met their safety standards.

Steve Comkow, part of a group ejected by Mitsuyasu and company, said he and his friends didn't know there was a problem with burning pallets, or they wouldn't have dragged a stack of them onto the beach.

""Before they kick you out, they should have a public notice that gives you all the rules of the beach," said Comkow, 30.

Adam Berke, president of the San Francisco chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, sees both sides of the argument. His organization sympathizes with the agency's desire to protect the beach, but thinks the Park Service has not done enough to educate the public.

"The likely policy of banning the bonfires would require just as much enforcement as educating the public," he said. "There are alternative solutions, like having fire pits with a permitting system that would help pay for the upkeep."

The Park Service gave the public until June 1 to respond to its proposed Ocean Beach ban; its decision is expected this summer.

Mitsuyasu isn't convinced that posting more rules, installing official fire pits or anything else would make bonfires more viable at Ocean Beach. He notes that signs already warn visitors that alcohol and glass containers aren't allowed, yet the prohibitions are often violated.

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