With air quality proposal on the table, beachside fires could soon be banned at LA and OC state beaches
By Andrea Papagianis
No drinking. No smoking. No dogs. No beach fires?
What began as a local debate over whether or not the city of Newport Beach should remove dozens of fire rings from two beaches, Corona del Mar and Balboa, has grown into a two-countywide deliberation—between nostalgic beach-goers and state air quality officials—over the overall fate of Orange and Los Angeles county beachside fires.
Newport Beach’s city council voted last March to eliminate fire pits from two beaches—over community health concerns and resident complaints that beach fires had become a public nuisance. And over the course of the last year, the city sought California Coastal Commission approval to remove 60 fire rings.
Commission staff defended the fire pits and suggested keeping the fire pits as a free attraction to beachgoers, but the commission tabled its decision on the fire rings’ fate last month after state air quality officials became involved.
Now, a recently introduced proposal by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD)—the state air pollution agency for parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties and all of Orange County—could ban beach fires, year round, on state beaches from Playa del Rey to San Clemente.
In its findings, the commission pointed to an exemption in AQMD’s rules—for recreational fires—as a basis for allowing the rings to stay, but spokesman Sam Atwood for the South Coast Air Quality Management District said this exemption was misapplied.
Atwood added the air quality agency didn’t want the Coastal Commission, or any other agency, to use their regulations as a rationale for not allowing the removal of items deemed harmful by a municipality—such as fire rings, because in the end they are a source of pollution.
So, AQMD staff took up the issue, and along with other proposals, introduced a ban on open burning on all district beaches.
“The reason for doing this is simple,” Atwood said. “It’s the same reason that we adopt all of our other regulations, and that is to protect public health.”
Currently, beachside bonfires are permitted in park-provided fire rings throughout 14 beaches in the two counties, but the proposal would render some 890 rings useless. And those opposed to the ban aren’t convinced health interests spurred the proposal.
“This appears to be a move by a small cadre of wealthy beach property owners in a well-heeled area of the county to deny the pleasures of a beach fire to the wide socio-economic sweep of the general public,” said Ed Neely, the spokesman for the Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association (DSBIA).
Between Doheny State Beach and Capistrano Beach Park, Dana Point’s beaches are home to nearly 40 fire pits and neighboring San Clemente beaches to around 170.
Murrieta resident Bob Landwehr, who has vacationed in southern Orange County with his family for decades, and spends five months of the year beachside camping with his wife, fears the ban will put an end to an aspect of camping he and his family hold dear.
“We have pictures of grandma and grandpa before they passed, sitting around the fire ring with other relatives, cousins and uncles, and it’s been an integral part of our beach experience,” said Landwehr. “And I would very much hate to see it go away.”
Bill Brooks, president of the DSBIA echoed the same sentiment.
“This is a decision with statewide implications and if it passes here, it could spread up and down the state,” he said. “It’s an attempt to steal away historical and cultural traditions.”
But spokesman for the air quality agency, Atwood, held that this one-line proposed amendment—in the overall agency plan to get the district in line with federally implemented standards by 2015—was indeed introduced with the best interests of residents in mind.
“We know that wood smoke is not healthy to breathe, it contains thousands of pollutants, some of which are cancer causing,” Atwood said.
According to the SCAQMD staff report—which introduced the proposed ban, included in changes to Rules 444 and 445—residents in the agency’s district are exposed to “some of the highest ambient concentrations in the nation” of particulate matter—described by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a particle pollution, a mixture of very small particles and liquid droplets, made up of components such as acids, dust particles, organic chemicals and metals.
While often too small to see, many particle pollutants like dust, soot and smoke can be viewed with the naked eye. Levels of these pollutants are measured and tracked by regional Ambient Air Monitoring Stations, and are highly regulated by the EPA.
Atwood said the overall goal of the agency’s proposal was to tighten up and make existing rules more stringent to be in line with federal standards, Standards, he added, the air quality district was not currently meeting.
The proposed amendments to Rule 444, relating to wood-burning devices, and Rule 445, regarding open burning, could also lower the threshold required to declare no-burn days. Ultimately, this could increase the number of no-burn days placed on home-based wood-burning fireplaces and stoves.
According to the AQMD staff report, while smoke from firewood and opening burning is not the “largest source of the region’s particulate pollution,” it is one of the last “uncontrolled sources of particulates … and air quality modeling indicates that significant air quality improvements can be achieved by reducing these emissions.”
Brian Ketterer, California State Park Superintendent for the Orange Coast District—which includes six state beaches from Bolsa Chica to San Onofre—said the air quality agency hasn’t done enough research to implement this ban, and added he doubted they could get an accurate reading in just one-months’ time.
The SCAQMD Governing Board will meet on May 3, and is poised to decide on the proposed ban on beach fires in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Atwood said the agency’s findings would be available for public review before the meeting.
Proposed amendments to the air quality district’s rules would do not include a ban on charcoal or gas cooking at beaches. The SCAQMD board meeting on May 3 will be held at 9 a.m. at South Coast AQMD headquarters, 21865 Copley Dr., Diamond Bar.