Members of the Sasser–Williams family of Los Angeles roast marshmallows… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
A fight over bonfire pits in Newport Beach went regional Friday, when air quality officials proposed a year-round ban on open burning on all Los Angeles and Orange County beaches.
Officials cited health concerns for beachgoers. They said the proposal is part of an effort to strengthen regional air quality regulations to meet stricter federal clean air standards for fine-particulate pollutants by 2015.
"This is not going to be the end of California's storied beach culture and history," said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "This is to create a healthier experience for those who go to the beach."
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that smoke is unhealthy and contains many harmful pollutants — some of which can cause cancer," he said. "And it doesn't take a costly scientific study to tell you that dozens of these fires in close proximity create very unhealthy levels of smoke for anyone near them, and for residents downwind."
The agency also wants to resolve a conflict with the California Coastal Commission, which views the fire rings as an access issue.
Newport Beach's fire rings have drawn generations of log-toting beachgoers. But city officials, under pressure from homeowners who said they are fed up with bonfire smoke, had asked the coastal panel for permission to remove all 60 of them — 33 near the Balboa Pier and 27 on a patch of Corona del Mar State Beach known as Big Corona.
The commission staff, in a report, had opposed removing the rings, saying it would deny public access to the popular form of lower-cost public recreation. In addition, a decision to approve Newport Beach's request could set a precedent that could lead to removal of fire rings from other parts of the coast, the report said.
The commission's ruling on the Newport Beach request, however, has been delayed pending a decision by the air quality board on the wider ban, scheduled for May 3.
During recent hearings on the Newport Beach matter, coastal commission staff noted that campfires, beach bonfires and ceremonial burning are exempt from the air board's restrictions on open fires.
"We don't want the coastal commission keeping any local city from removing fire rings and somehow using our regulations as a rationale for doing that," Atwood said.
Coastal commission officials were unavailable for comment. The air quality management district has jurisdiction in Orange County and significant portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
Newport Beach City Councilwoman Nancy Gardner welcomed the proposed region-wide ban. "It's a big step going from a city that wants to remove its fire rings to banning them in two counties," she said.
Gardner said the situation "demonstrates the challenges a city faces when dealing with different agencies that have different missions. Making those different missions jibe can be difficult."
"In this case, the commission said this was an access issue — that we wanted to take something away from someone," she added. "For the SCAQMD, it's an air quality issue."
Though a majority of those who wanted to get rid of Newport Beach's fire rings framed their effort as a public health issue, other locals saw different motives. Some suggested complainers were trying to dissuade out-of-towners from visiting their beach, where bonfires and summer grilling go with the territory.
Others posted comments evoking childhood memories dating to the late 1940s and early '50s, when fire rings first became part of the city's beachscape.
"Don't let rich people take this away from us common folk!" one of them said.
Atwood insisted that "this is not just an issue between people who come to the beach to enjoy a beach fire and those who live in expensive homes across the street. This would be to protect the health of everyone who enjoys the beach."
A public meeting on the proposal will be held at 9 a.m. March 28 at the air quality board's headquarters in Diamond Bar.