May 5, 2013

Popular seaside fire pits touch off dispute over air pollution

While some see the flaming fire pits as a summer tradition, others want to snuff them out.

The Associated Press

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. - Anna Abderhalden and her siblings woke before dawn to stake a claim to a coveted beachfront spot where bonfires blaze each night as a rite of summer in this surf-crazy Southern California city.

click image to enlarge

Blazing fire pits like this one on Huntington Beach, Calif., have ignited controversy over their possible contribution to air pollution. Air quality regulators are considering a proposal to ban beach bonfires in Southern California.

The Associated Press

More than 12 hours later, Abderhalden's toes were tucked in the sand as an orange sun dipped below the horizon and flames warmed her family.

"This is a unique place," she said as her sister-in-law skewered a marshmallow. "You're by nature, you've got the ocean right there and we've got our feet in the sand."

The glow of a tradition dating back decades could soon be dimmed if air quality regulators vote to ban wood burning across miles of beaches in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The proposition has sparked a bitter dispute between those who see the bonfires as a treasured slice of California coastal culture and those who say they are a smoky health hazard for millions.

More immediately, the debate has fueled an increasingly personal spat between residents of two neighboring beach cities known worldwide for their luxurious stretches of sand, surfing and sun-kissed weather.

The affluent coastal city of Newport Beach first considered extinguishing its 60 fire pits last year, after beachfront residents complained about exposure to wood smoke from bonfires just yards from their homes.

The city applied to the California Coastal Commission to snuff the pits, but the commission - which is charged with protecting public access to the coast - slammed the idea in a staff report and postponed its vote.

The controversy, however, prompted regional air quality regulators to take a closer look and propose a sweeping ban that has inflamed passions in nearby Huntington Beach, aka Surf City USA.

The town, known for its laid-back surf culture and 10 miles of beaches, stands to lose almost $1 million a year in parking revenue alone from a fire pit ban, not counting losses to local businesses and hotels.

The state parks system also has more than a half-million dollars at stake and worries that the proposal's broad wording could eventually lead to a similar ban at campsites with beach access.

Huntington Beach and its supporters launched a campaign - "Keep Your Mitts Off Our Pits" - and spearheaded an online petition with nearly 8,500 signatures so far. State and local politicians have also waded into an escalating war of words that is increasingly being cast as a showdown between NIMBY-happy residents of Newport Beach and the scrappier middle-class surf haven to its north.

"It's God, mom, hot apple pie and fire rings," said Steve Bone, president of the Huntington Beach Marketing and Visitors Bureau. "We do respect our neighbor and if they would like to get rid of them that's fine. But we don't think we should be put in the same category."

Newport Beach did not intend to jeopardize the region's fire rings and, in a recent letter to Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman, proposed allowing individual cities to decide the matter themselves.

City Manager David Kiff did not respond to further request for comment beyond providing the letter to the AP.

In a sign of the mounting tension, the chairman of the regional air quality board was pilloried by fire pit supporters after he angrily compared the smoke from Newport Beach's bonfires to "carpet bombing" during the Vietnam War during a public hearing. The South Coast Air Quality Management District board votes on the ban next month.

Newport Beach residents say smoke drifting up the bougainvillea-covered bluffs is thick enough to trigger fire alarms and coat patio furniture and cars in soot.

One homeowner in the gated Breakers Drive community just yards from Corona del Mar State Beach, which has 27 fire rings, said he had to extinguish burning embers that drifted onto his deck.

 

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