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Compromise is sought on wood-burning fire rings at beaches

Air-quality regulators soften a proposed ban by allowing those outside a 700-foot buffer zone between fire pits and homes.

June 09, 2013|By Jill Cowan and Anthony Clark Carpio, Los Angeles Times
  • Newport Beach and the South Coast Air Quality Management District plan to test 10 fire rings that would run on an alternative fuel to wood at Corona de Mar State Beach and near the Balboa Pier. Above, a father and son sit by a fire at Corona del Mar State Beach.
Newport Beach and the South Coast Air Quality Management District plan… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

Bowing to public pressure, air-quality regulators are floating a compromise on a proposed ban on wood-burning fire rings on beaches in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

The proposal made public last week would soften the proposed ban by creating buffer zones between fire rings and homes and allowing for greater local control.

Officials of the South Coast Air Quality Management District said they are working with Newport Beach on a test run of "alternative fuel" fire rings, which would probably run on propane or natural gas.

Newport Beach officials have pushed to remove their city's rings on grounds they pose a health risk to nearby residents. But Huntington Beach officials have led a charge to save the bonfires, which they say are a rich Southern California tradition and a major draw for tourists.

Since the district proposed the ban in late March, state lawmakers, local officials and residents throughout both counties have weighed in on the debate over the fire rings.

The district board voted Friday to take up the issue at a special July 12 meeting. The proposed ban wouldn't have gone into effect until March 1.

The revised proposal would allow wood-burning fire rings that are at least 700 feet from the closest homes, at least 100 feet from each other or at least 50 feet apart if there are 15 or fewer fire rings within a city's boundaries.

District spokesman Sam Atwood said the 700-foot buffer was chosen based on air-quality dispersion studies.

According to staff reports, he said, "about 700 feet away from the source, you reduce relative exposure by 98%," which staff members felt was a sufficient drop in health hazard.

Under the proposed rule, about 30 rings less than 700 feet from the Huntington-by-the-Sea mobile home park near Pacific Coast Highway between Beach Boulevard and Newland Street would either have to be removed or moved so that they would be at least 100 feet apart.

Atwood said about 10 rings at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point, two to four rings at Capistrano Beach in Dana Point and two to four rings at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro would also have to be removed or shifted.

All 60 fire rings in Newport Beach, he added, would need to be moved.

"Aside from that," he said, "in our analysis all the other existing fire pits would meet the requirements of the buffer zone [and] therefore would not be affected."

In something of a coup for Newport Beach and Orange County officials, who advocated increased local control, the new proposal would allow counties or cities to remove their own fire rings if they find that they constitute a nuisance as defined by state code.

Atwood said counties and cities already have the authority to declare exposure to wood smoke a nuisance, but the revised rule would prevent "any other government body from being able to supersede" a fire pit ban.

That includes the California Coastal Commission, which put off ruling on Newport Beach's application to remove its fire rings. Discussion about the application spurred the AQMD to take up the issue.

The new proposal would also make beach fires subject to the same air-quality threshold as "no-burn days" that restrict residential fireplaces, typically during the winter in inland areas.

Atwood said that in beach areas, where breezes dissipate particulate matter, "it's not expected to be a frequent occurrence."

Last winter, he said, one day would have qualified as a no-burn day at the beach.

Charcoal barbecues and propane fires would be allowed on beaches under the revised proposal, which defines beaches as "a public coastal area marked by an accumulation of sand" — so bonfires at campsites close to beaches, such as some of the fire rings at Doheny, would be exempt from the rule.

The district has long pitched propane fires as an alternative to more hazardous wood-burning ones, and agency staff members are working with Newport Beach to test 10 fire rings that would run on an alternative fuel to wood, a city news release said Friday afternoon.

Atwood said that although the district plans to fund the project, he didn't know yet how much it would cost. The demonstration would last about six months — with five rings each at Corona del Mar State Beach and near the Balboa Pier — during which time the AQMD would continue monitoring air quality.

Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry said he is happy with the compromise.

"We are pleased that the AQMD has developed a rule with the flexibility to accommodate both the coastal cities that wish to keep all of their fire rings and Newport Beach that desires to address the health and quality-of-life concerns of our residents," he said in a statement.

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