It’s the Pits: Class Conflict and Pollution Debate over Proposed Beach Ban of Fire Rings

Wednesday, May 01, 2013
(photo: Corona Del Mar Today)

What started as an attempt by wealthy Newport Beach residents to have the city ban the popular fire rings that attract large crowds to the water’s edge has endangered the decades-old practice all along the coast of Orange and Los Angeles counties.

In August 2012, the city voted to ask the California Coastal Commission to let it remove 60 fire rings on two beaches near Balboa Pier and Corona del Mar State Beach. Officials cited health threats from the burning of wood in the pits and made a note of a rule by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD).

That triggered a review by the district. The commission delayed action on the city’s application to remove the fire rings, pending a decision from the AQMD. A preliminary decision, to ban the pits throughout Southern California, touched off a firestorm and compelled the district to delay a final vote from May until June 7.

The issue has divided affected communities.

A staff report for the Orange County Board of Supervisors recommended opposition to a ban. The county operates 11 pits. The city of Huntington Beach, home to 500 fire rings that attract tourists and their dollars, is also opposed. They have suggested, and Newport Beach concurs, that the district should allow individual jurisdictions the last word.

The state Department of Parks and Recreation wants to keep the rings, also for financial reasons.

Supporters of the ban cite health hazards from the fires’ fine-particulate pollutants, as well as an unsightly beach scene from excessive smoke and trash associated with the pits.

Opponents characterize the Newport Beach effort as a class conflict between wealthy residents at the shore and the people attending the fire rings, who are generally regarded to be of a lower socio-economic status. Gail Holland at the Los Angeles Times noted that  pollution claims are unsubstantiated and that more harm is probably done by “backyard fire pits, wood-fired ovens, hamburger grills and diesel-powered yachts.”

Dockweiler State Beach in Los Angeles County is home to 90 fire rings. It also sits in close proximity to a refinery, a sewage treatment plant and LAX.   

SCAQMD Chairman William Burke, who favors the ban, compared the fire rings to “carpet bombing” in Vietnam. “The aerial view of Newport Beach fire rings looks like a carpet bombing then. . . .  I'm telling you. Now ... that had gone from my mind maybe 20 to 30 years ago, but I looked at the aerial photograph and I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is Vietnam revisited!’ ”

“Don't come to me and tell me you've got to have fire rings because you need a good time,” Burke added.

Burke claimed smoke from the rings could be linked to brain cancer and fetal damage. His vociferous opposition to the pits brought accusations that he had a conflict of interest because he also held a position on the Coastal Commission. So, he resigned from the commission last month.  

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

AQMD Listens to Pros, Cons of Banning Beach Fire Pits (by Steve Scauzillo, Los Angeles Daily News)

Fire Ring Opponents Are Blowing Smoke (by Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times)

Orange County Supervisors to Weigh in on Beach Fire Ring Ban (by Jill Cowan, Los Angeles Times)

Dual-Serving Coastal Commissioner Resigns under Fire (by Jeremiah Dobruck, The Daily Pilot)

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