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It could be a dark day for Newport Beach fire pits

The city is considering removing them after complaints of late-night partying and leftover mess. But opponents of that plan are fighting to hold on to their bonfire tradition.

October 28, 2009|Tony Barboza

It's an evening tradition at Corona del Mar State Beach: At first, families descend on the 30 fire rings in the sand with bundles of wood, camping chairs and blankets, marshmallows and hot dogs.

Then, as night falls, crowds of young people huddle around the glow of raging bonfires. When 10 p.m. hits, the police roll in to move them along.

But that tradition could soon go up in smoke.

Fed up with the late-night partying, smoke and mess left behind, Newport Beach officials may extinguish its dozens of fire pits once and for all.

Councilwoman Nancy Gardner, who is spearheading the effort, said the nighttime scene at the fire pits at Big Corona, as the beach is known, has gotten out of control, with revelers burning huge nail-studded pallets and leaving hot coals in the sand. The aroma of lighter fluid sometimes lingers until morning.

"We were having trouble clearing the beaches when it closes at 10, and it tended to not be families, but people drinking and leaving glass," she said. "People were just emptying their garages and throwing them in the fire."

Earlier this month when the City Council passed limits on what sort of material could be burned in the pits, Gardner proposed going one step further and removing them entirely.

"Finally the problems are outweighing the benefits," she said.

But as before, in trying to rip out 66 fire rings along two stretches of sand -- at Corona del Mar State Beach and near Balboa Pier -- the city will face several dedicated foes. Among them: nostalgic beachgoers who decry the shrinking number of places to enjoy a beach-side bonfire, and possibly the state Coastal Commission.

The number of open-air fire pits has dwindled statewide, but people travel far to spend a few evening hours in the warmth of a fire at places like Corona del Mar.

Justin Rhodes, 19, drove from Fontana to Corona del Mar last week to huddle around a fire ring with his girlfriend.

The beach is not just a party spot; it's one of the most picturesque places to roast hot links and s'mores. "It's relaxing, it's cheap, it's a nice getaway," he said.

The state parks department, which owns nearly one-third of the California coastline, allows fires at 29 of its 114 coastal sites.

Fires are allowed by the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors on only one strip of sand near LAX: Dockweiler Beach in Marina del Rey. Orange County is home to hundreds of beach fire rings, most of which are in Huntington Beach.

The pits are a target for removal, in part, because of their popularity.

During summer, the rings are in such high demand that police have been called to Newport's beaches at 4 a.m. to kick out people trying to secure a fire ring for the next evening.

But as a time-honored California destination, they're hard to eliminate.

Authorities from San Francisco to San Diego have targeted fire rings for removal, only to be deluged by complaints. When San Diego last year ordered the removal of 186 fire pits at city beaches, a benefactor pledged $259,500 to keep them open for 18 months.

More than 1,000 people have joined a Facebook group called "Save the Big Corona Fire Pits!" posting comments such as "Where will I roast my marshmallows at?" and "Summer wouldn't be the same without a bonfire on the beach!"

"They are as much a part of Big Corona as the sand," wrote one member.

But people such as Barbara Peters, a retiree who lives in a condo within eyesight of the fire pits, have a different take.

For her, the fire rings mean the screeches of boisterous partyers and smoke from trash, scrap wood, even lacquered furniture wafting up into her home.

On busy summer nights, the air gets so thick with smoke that she shuts her windows to keep the smoke alarms from sounding.

"I've called the police at 1 in the morning with people singing their hearts out -- and not because they're sober," she said. "We've reached a point where it's too much, it's too late."

Others, including parents whose children have stepped on hot coals left over from the night before, have crusaded to have the pits closed to prevent accidental burns.

The city doesn't need state approval to tear out the fire rings, state parks officials said. But once the plan gets closer to approval by Newport Beach, the state Coastal Commission may weigh in on whether removing them would rid the coastline of a valuable public amenity.

Betsy Jackson, a Corona del Mar resident who walks her fox terrier along the beach in the evenings, dismisses opponents of the rings as party poopers.

"I love coming down here . . . when they're all ablaze and the kids are giggling," she said. "It would be really sad if they pulled them out."

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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