The smoke from beach bonfires drifts into Charles Farrell’s Balboa Peninsula home and crashes on his bed like a drunk partygoer.
“The soot lingers inside my home for days. It’s everywhere, including your bedsheets. When I go to work, people think I’ve been smoking,” he told a panel of managers from the South Coast Air Quality Management District Thursday. While Farrell spoke in favor, a majority spoke against the air district’s proposed ban on beach fires along the Orange and Los Angeles county coastlines during a spirited informational hearing held at its headquarters.
The four-county air pollution agency officially will take up the ban May 3 as part of an amendment to an existing rule curtailing particulate pollution. The AQMD is also tightening a rule regulating wood-burning fireplaces from inside people’s homes that could result in between 10 and 20 “no burn” days each winter – more than double the number declared this past winter.
Though no decision was made Thursday, the AQMD top staff got an earful from both sides. Mostly Newport Beach residents favored the ban, while the city and business community of Huntington Beach strongly opposed it on the grounds it would end a treasured family tradition and also take a bite out of tourist revenues. Huntington Beach predicts it would lose $1 million in parking fees alone if people can’t come to the shore and enjoy a hot dog and some s’mores around a beach campfire.
Also in opposition was the state Department of Parks and Recreation, which said the state budget would suffer from lost revenues.
“Nothing is cast in stone,” explained Laki Tisopulos, AQMD assistant deputy executive officer, hinting that the agency could soften its rule. The AQMD is considering replacing wood-burning pits with propane-fueled fires that burn much cleaner, said Barry Wallerstein, AQMD executive officer.
The draft amendment bans open fires in backyards and wood-burning fires at beaches in order to protect public health. Wood-burning fires produce air quality near homes with twice the average number of particulates. Of concern are the smaller particulates or PM 2.5, which can enter the lungs and cause disease, asthma, cancer, even premature death, according to the AQMD and scientists.
“I’ve seen many of my neighbors suffering from lung diseases, lung cancer, emphysema and asthma,” said Barbara Peters of Corona del Mar, who lives 500 feet from 27 fire rings.
Yet despite pleas from beach residents, many said it is far more damaging to end a long-standing Southern California tradition enjoyed year-round by millions.
In Los Angeles County, the AQMD lists 90 fire rings at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey and nine rings in San Pedro beaches. Most of the impact would be felt by those using Orange County beaches. For example, the ban would prohibit the popular nighttime ritual at 182 fire rings at Bolsa Chica State Beach, 200 at Huntington State Beach, 130 at Huntington Beach City Beach, 33 on the Balboa Peninsula and 27 in Corona del Mar in Newport Beach.
“Surf City USA without fire rings would be like saying no more Mickey Mouse at Disneyland,” said Barbara Delglaze, a 40-year Huntington Beach resident and real estate broker.
The city of Newport Beach had sought permission to remove its fire rings from the Coastal Commission after getting complaints about smoke from residents. The commission favored keeping the fire pits as an inexpensive activity for low-income residents who visit the beach but officially postponed a decision until June, saying it wanted to see what the AQMD board does.
Brian Ketterer, superintendent of the Orange Coast District for the state Department of Parks and Recreation, said the ban would be felt at San Clemente and Doheny state beaches, where beach fire pits are an integral part of the camping experience.
“An open campfire is a family tradition,” Ketterer said, something that has brought people together at state parks for 150 years. “Sitting around a campfire, watching the dancing flames is mesmerizing. It has a calming effect,” he told the panel, calling a ban on wood-burning beach fires “short-sighted.”
Wallerstein proposed natural gas or propane-burning fire rings. “Where you can simply connect your propane tank to it,” he said.
A spokeswoman from Huntington Beach said using propane tanks instead of wood is not a safe alternative. She told the panel the city’s fire department sees a danger in several hundred tanks of propane on the beach per night.