James Hughes adds fuel to the blaze in a fire ring at Corona Del Mar State Beach. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Summer is nearly here, and with it the concrete fire rings at Big Corona in Newport Beach will be ablaze in a postcard-worthy California tradition as enduring as riding longboards.
Picture it: Hot dogs and s'mores and flickering flames. Snuggling under blankets. Some dude strumming a guitar.
Barbara Peters sees it differently: Plumes of smoke wafting back from the beach and into her home steps away from Big Corona.
"At times it can get so bad that it will set off peoples' smoke detectors," Peters said.
The California Coastal Commission on Wednesday will decide the fate of Newport Beach's fire rings, which have drawn generations of log-toting beachgoers and, more recently, complaints from some homeowners fed up with the smoke.
The commission, meeting in San Diego, is expected to rule on Newport Beach's request for a permit to remove all its fire rings — 33 near the Balboa Pier and 27 on a patch of Corona del Mar State Beach managed by the city and better known as Big Corona.
While those who want to get rid of the fire rings have framed their effort as a public health issue, others see different motives.
"They're trying to dissuade individuals from out of town from coming to their beach," said David Ruiz, 25, who lives a few hundred feet from Balboa's fire rings and uses them all the time.
"Unless you purchased your house prior to 1940 you knew what you were getting into," Ruiz said. "Bonfires and summer grilling at the beach — it goes along with the territory."
The issue has struck an emotional chord. An online petition Ruiz started last year that seeks to snuff out Newport Beach's plan to remove the fire rings has drawn nearly 6,000 responses.
Many who posted comments evoked childhood memories dating to the late 1940s and early 1950s, when fire rings first became part of the city's beachscape.
"Been enjoying the fire pits my entire life," one woman wrote. "Looking forward to eventually taking grandchildren to one. Can't afford a beach front home so a barbecue on the beach is a treat.
"Don't let rich people take this away from us common folk!" she added.
But the Coastal Commission also has heard from residents who say living next door to the wildly popular fire rings is like having an incinerator for a neighbor.
"It is just plain unhealthy," wrote Daniel J. Leonard, president of one beachfront homeowners association. "Now is the time to clean our air, not only for local residents but also for all people enjoying the beaches."
Added Peters: "My mother-in-law had asthma and she couldn't visit us in her later years. She loved the beach. But could she step foot down there when the fires were burning? No. It could mean a trip to the emergency room."
A report by the commission's staff recommends the fire rings be left alone. It cites a state Coastal Act provision to encourage and protect "lower cost" recreational facilities. It also warned that letting Newport Beach remove its fire rings would set a precedent "that could lead to removal of beach fire rings from other parts of the coast."
City officials have submitted scientific studies on the harmful health effects of wood smoke and the particulates it contains, but has not measured air quality on or around the beaches where bonfires are allowed.
Coastal Commission staff also brushed aside the city's attempt to link its fire rings to South Coast Air Quality Management District restrictions on open fires. Those restrictions, they noted, exempt "campfires, beach bonfires and ceremonial burning."
But perhaps not for long.
Last week, AQMD Vice Chairman Dennis Yates asked that the beach bonfire exemption be stricken from an upcoming amendment of the agency's regulations. Instead, he wants to allow local governments — not the Coastal Commission — to decide.
"I read an article" about the Newport Beach controversy, Yates said Monday. "I wasn't aware we exempted [beach fires]. I totally missed that."
The AQMD, under pressure to meet stricter federal clean air standards by 2015, is on a granular hunt for pollution sources, he said.
"I used to go to Newport Beach for years … so I understand where they're coming from," Yates said of those who have a nostalgic connection with beach bonfires.
"We used to do a lot of things that were harmful to the environment and the people who live here," he added. "For us human health takes top priority."