By Amy Senk | Corona del Mar Today
DIAMOND BAR — Beach bonfires sell tens of thousands of dollars in s’mores ingredients every year, connect families and strangers and are part of California history — but they also throw off dangerous wood smoke and create filth, members of the public testified at a Thursday morning meeting at the South Coast Air Quality Management District headquarters.
“Recreational open fires bonds friendships,” said Brian Ketterer, a State Parks district superintendent who said he opposed a ban on beach fires. “It promotes positive mental health. There’s a balance between air quality and quality of life.”
Most of the speakers at the three-hour meeting said they did not support the ban, which the SCAQMD board will vote on at a May 3 meeting. The ban would be part of changes to Rules 444 and 445 and would prohibit 840 fire rings in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
A panel of AQMD staff members, including legal counsel, economists and others, listened to more than 20 members of the public as they spoke. Corona del Mar residents Frank and Barbara Peters, vocal opponents of beach fires, spoke, as well as Charles Farrell, a Newport Beach resident who said he could not escape the smoke in his home, even in the shower.
“It’s a very traumatic experience,” he said. “The smoke lingers for days.”
All the speakers who supported the ban on beach fires were from Newport Beach or Corona del Mar, including Brenda Wisneski, the city’s deputy community development director, speaking against fire rings.
Speakers from Huntington Beach, many wearing stickers that said Keep Your Mitts Off Our Pits, asked for the rings to remain in place, as well as a few Newport Beach and other residents who spoke.
“Newport is out of control,” said Thomas Sweatt, a Newport Beach resident. “It’s like a blind person swinging a mace, and the mace has fallen on the fire pits.”
“I’m in favor of the fire pits,” said Therese Sliter, a former Huntington Beach resident. “They keep families together. I don’t feel it traumatizes anyone very much. It’s a grand feeling to have that wonderful beach smoke all over the place. If you think it’s horrible, don’t be at the beach.”
Randol Brown of Fountain Valley said the proposed ban was the result of a “rich, powerful and self-absorbed push to control what the public has rights to.”
“We all know controlled fires have been enjoyed since the dawn of man,” he said.
Representatives for Assemblyman Allan Mansoor and Sen. Mimi Walters read statements opposed to a fire ring ban, and Laurie Frymire, community relations officer for Huntington Beach, testified.
“Huntington Beach was caught a bit off guard by this proposal,” she said, adding that she only knew about this meeting because Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff called, seeking support of a beach fire ban.
John Ehlenfeldt, vice president of sales and marketing for the Huntington Beach Visitor’s Bureau, said beach bonfires were vital to the city’s tourism revenue. One hotel, he said, sold $50,000 to $60,000 worth of s’more kits a year. Frymire said that reports that Huntington Beach could lose $1 million a year in revenue if fire rings were removed were “very conservative.”
Mary Urashima of Huntington Beach asked why the AQMD was focusing on fire rings instead of other sources of air pollution.
“Is this low-hanging fruit?” she asked. “There are larger issues that could be looked at.”
Several speakers asked that the AQMD conduct more public outreach or even a year-long study of air quality at the beach, and to delay a May vote. AQMD staff said air quality at the beaches has been studied.
The public may attend meetings on April 5 and May 3 and make comments, said Sam Atwood, an AQMD spokesman. Atwood said no additional Public Consultation meetings were planned, and the vote was not expected to be delayed.
Newport Beach City Council voted in March 2012 to remove the city’s 60 beach fire rings. The California Coastal Commission, which must grant a permit for the rings’ removal, voted unanimously earlier this month to wait for the AQMD vote before voting.
LKYD staff asked every speaker if they would approve of a compromise that would use propane tanks to fuel fires instead of wood smoke. Most people said the idea wouldn’t work, and Frymire said that city’s fire chief had major safety concerns about such a plan.
Staff described the consultation meeting as a brainstorming session, and comments made during the meeting would be summarized and included in a final staff report for the May 3 meeting, Atwood said.
A ban on beach fire rings could be implemented immediately, AQMD officials have said. The board could vote on a complete ban, or a compromise that would allow cities to opt in or out of a ban.
Newport Beach City Council voted in March 2012 to remove the city’s 60 beach fire rings, including 27 at Big Corona State Beach. The California Coastal Commission, which must grant a permit for the rings’ removal, voted unanimously earlier this month to wait for the AQMD vote before voting.