Fire Rings Decision Delayed Until Air District’s May Meeting

posted: March 6th, 2013 04:16 pm | 2Comments

The California Coastal Commission today postponed a decision on the future of the city’s 60 beach fire rings until after May, when another agency will consider whether to lift an exemption that allows bonfires on beaches while limiting other wood-burning fires.

“This exemption will be lifted,” said Commissioner William Burke, chairman of the South Coast Air Quality Management District board. “Anybody who thinks that is not going to pass is not in touch with reality.”

Burke’s comments drew applause, and moments later the commissioners agreed unanimously to wait for the outcome of its sister agency’s meeting before going forward with their decision.

Corona del Mar resident Frank Peters, who attended the Coastal Commission meeting in San Diego, said he was “ecstatic” by the development.

“It looks like the Coastal Commission is looking to punt this issue,” he said. “We’re very encouraged and hopeful. This is going to become a much larger removal of fire rings potentially — Huntington Beach and elsewhere.”

The City of Newport Beach applied last year for permission to remove 60 fire rings, including 27 from Big Corona State Beach, largely because of concerns about the harmful effects of wood smoke.

Coastal Commission staff had recommended denial of the coastal permit, issuing a report that said the rings were “a unique recreational facility for which there is no substitution.” The report also said that while staff understood the dangers of wood smoke — a major concern of some residents and City Council members — the city had not conducted studies that proved that fire ring smoke was the causing pollution near the beaches where they are located.

Newport Beach’s application referred to the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Rule 445, which was adopted in 2008 and banned wood-burning fireplaces in new developments. That rule specifically exempts beach bonfires, and that exemption had concerned Coastal Commission staff.

The SCAQMD’s board meeting is scheduled for May 3. Newport Beach agreed to the postponement, and the Coastal Commission will wait for the air quality decision before revisiting the issue.

Nonetheless, the commissioners conducted a full hearing that lasted 1 hour and 27 minutes.

Fifteen residents spoke, nearly evenly split on whether the fire rings were a health hazard or a classic California icon worth preserving.

“It’s a very unique feature of Newport Beach,” said Nadine Turner, a vocal fire rings proponent. “It’s very sad.”

Denise Wallace, who has lived 400 feet from the Big Corona Beach fire rings for 40 years, said the rings were popular with groups and with families. The city’s proposal to replace them with exercise equipment, play structures and volleyball courts wouldn’t be the same.

“It’s an icon of California living,” she said.

But other residents described health problems, including emphysema and cancer, noxious odors and soot from the fire rings.

“I love nostalgia, I’m crazy for nostalgia,” said John Hamilton. “But for me, my health is more important.”

Commissioner Esther Sanchez said she had concerns that Newport Beach had not presented a more comprehensive plan to deal with fire rings issues.

“There’s not really been a real plan,” she said. Air quality might be affected from barbecues as much as beach fires, she said, but the city did not study that issue. They also did not take steps to lessen the impact of beach fires, she said, and the city’s plans for amenities to replace the rings seemed more geared toward local residents than regional beach visitors.

“It looks to me like it’s a way of controlling the public,” she said. She moved to support the staff’s recommendation of denial of the permit, but she agreed that the Coastal Commission should wait to see what the air quality board decides in May.

After the meeting, City Manager Dave Kiff said in an electronic message that city staff looks forward to a second review after the AQMD’s action.

“We took heart at Dr. Burke’s compelling and informed comments,” he wrote. “They were very powerful.”

Burke said he’d been studying air quality issues for a third of his life, and at this point it was not for himself but for young people.

“Don’t come tell me, ‘I have to have fire rings’ because you need a good time,” he said. “I’m very passionate about this issue.”

City officials have considered removing beach fire rings since 2009 when the issue was set aside because of budget issues. In September 2011, Councilwoman Nancy Gardner asked that the issue be studied after a lawsuit was filed against Huntington Beach when a child was injured at a fire ring there. In February 2012, the City’s Parks, Beaches & Recreation Commission voted 4-3 to recommend that the Council remove the rings, and the Council voted unanimously last March to remove them.

Read our earlier stories here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Bottom photo courtesy of Nadine Turner.

2 Responses to “Fire Rings Decision Delayed Until Air District’s May Meeting”


Frank Peters

March 6th, 2013

City Manager Dave Kiff, together with Kim Brandt and Laura Detweiler delivered an impressive presentation on the adverse health effects at the fire rings. The Commissioners and Staff were immediately placed in the uncomfortable position of potentially advocating for toasting marshmallows at the the expense of residents' health. As more people moved to the microphone to share their stories it reminded me of that night at the City Council when they voted unanimously for removal; the argument for healthy amenities over cancer-causing burn pits is unassailable. As Commissioner Burke took control of the discussion, you could hear a pin drop and not one word was said in rebuttal to his arguments for public health versus a night of fun. Today was an opportunity to stand up for the public good and our city staff made me proud.

JR Means

March 7th, 2013

This is a ridiculous thing to be debating. If you feel the fire rings are detrimental to your health, stay upwind from the smoke. Or stay off the particular beach that still allows people who enjoy fires and their calming and community building effects. Are you truly wanting a smoke free environment or do you want the beach to yourself? CDM continues to add banks, nail salons and carpet stores. We need sidewalk dining and a 25 mph speed limit downtown. We need more social gathering places that bring us back to our village roots. Fewer six foot walls and gates that separate us and cause division. We are a friendly village that used to thrive on knowing our neighbors and socializing with them. Think about the last time you sat around a fire with friends and family gazing into the flames as the troubles of the world disappeared into the darkness.

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