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Compromise needed on Newport Beach fire rings

As the AQMD seeks a solution to pollution complaints, questions arise about whether the problem is smoke, or just smoke generated by outsiders.

July 03, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • The South Coast Air Quality Management District is scheduled to vote next week on a proposal that would ban fire rings within 700 feet of homes in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District is scheduled to vote next… (Los Angeles Times )

The complaints of some homeowners about public fire rings in Newport Beach quickly morphed into a draconian proposal by regional air officials to eliminate all of the popular beach bonfire pits in Los Angeles and Orange counties. And though that proposal has since been softened, the new version still calls for removing all the rings in Newport Beach.

Although coastal homeowners shouldn't have to be continually bombarded by smoke and soot, the South Coast Air Quality Management District has not come up with a persuasive rationale for its recommendation, which so far is generating more heat than light.

The AQMD board is scheduled to vote next week on its most recent proposal, which would ban fire rings within 700 feet of homes — which happens to eliminate all of Newport Beach's 60 fire rings, as the city wants, but very few in other cities. Although at times the pollution close by the bonfires exceeds short-term standards, an AQMD study found, the exposure to pollutants is reduced by 98% at 700 feet away. But that also means the bonfires are not significant contributors to regional or even local air pollution, past the immediate area.

At the same time, the proposal would do nothing about the portable fire rings and charcoal barbecues that are allowed on or adjacent to affected beaches, or about wood-burning pits on private land. In Newport Beach, the public fire rings would be banned but not the ones that residents might set up on their beachfront patios. Is the problem smoke, or just smoke generated by beach visitors? One resident who asked for the rings to be removed wrote that only several summers after she and her husband moved in did they realize that the people using the fire pits "were NOT people who resided here in Newport Beach but visitors." Something about this doesn't smell right, and it's not the burned marshmallows.

The staff of the California Coastal Commission released a report Friday that recommends against allowing Newport Beach to remove its fire rings. The report said the bonfires are a coastal access bonus that provide low-cost recreation by the sea, and that eliminating them in one city would cause more crowding elsewhere. The report also questioned the AQMD's 700-foot rule, saying a much shorter distance would reduce pollutant levels to nearby homes by 80% to 90% while retaining more of the fire rings.

The Coastal Commission will discuss the issue at a separate meeting next week. But the smartest discussion would be for all the agencies to work out a reasonable compromise, such as a smaller buffer zone, better policing and spreading out the Newport Beach fire rings so that they're not concentrated in just two spots. And rules that limit public fire rings should also set limits on private fire pits, because where there's smoke, there's — well, smoke.

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