The debate over the fire rings is still smoldering.
After nearly two hours of public comment and discussion at a meeting in San Diego, the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday to continue the item regarding the removal of 60 fire rings in Newport Beach until the Air Quality Management District meets in May.
The AQMD will evaluate and consider lifting the rule that exempts campfires, beach bonfires, and ceremonial burning from certain regulations pertaining to the South Coast area.
After the decision, City Manager Dave Kiff said he was happy with the continuation. It was better than if they had voted to deny the city’s permit outright, he added.
Even if the air quality board does lift the exemption rule, Kiff said he does not envision any changes in the wording of the permit application, meaning the city would still request removal of all 60 fire rings.
“This would just add another layer of information,” to the issue, Kiff said.
He hopes they will consider all the evidence and act accordingly.
The city will have to wait before taking any action until the issue comes back to the coastal commission. They will be back before the commission in June, Kiff added.
Kiff also added that he thought Commissioner William Burke’s comments about the harm that wood smoke can cause were powerful and informative.
Burke, who has spent 20 years on the air quality board, is confident the exemption will be lifted.
The commissioner, who said he was passionate about this issue, called the smoke “toxic” and said the real concern is “the one you can’t smell.” He talked about the link between specific health problems and wood smoke, saying they’ve spent “millions and millions and millions” on research studies.
“So don’t come to me and tell me I got to have fire rings because I need a good time,” he said, because someone’s health will inevitably be affected. “For someone to come and tell me that they want to toast some marshmallows and hang out at the beach, and I’m not against that anywhere, but you cannot do it with creosote logs, with people throwing plastic cups and plastic bags into the fire. Can’t do it.”
The meeting also included a presentation from the city of Newport Beach, highlighting their concerns that the fire rings can limit access, health issues for visitors and residents, and what amenities they planned on adding.
“Although the best amenity out there is still open sand,” Kiff said in his summary.
Director of Community Development Kimberly Brandt went over the Coastal Commission staff report, and replied that the city will “respectfully disagree” on almost all of the points made by the CCC staff.
Laura Detweiler, Recreation and Senior Services Director, went over some of the possible replacement facilities being considered by the city, including volleyball and basketball courts, playground areas, picnic shelters, and exercise equipment.
A group of about 30 members of the public were in attendance at the meeting, with most of them speaking on the fire rings issue, and included comments from both sides.
Jason Anthonisen of Newport Beach spoke representing more than 5,800 signatures.
“We believe that the fire rings in Newport Beach and Big Corona are one of the last free and affordable forms of entertainment,” he said, adding that they are loved and used by countless groups, locals, and visitors from around the U.S. and the world.
Longtime Corona del Mar neighbors Howard Ahmanson and Jeanice Wallace also spoke in favor of keeping the fire rings. Both said they have noticed few to no problems because of the fire rings.
On the other side, John Hamilton, who has recently been diagnosed with emphysema, said his doctor recommended he move or get rid of the fire rings.
“I love nostalgia. I collect nostalgia. I‘m crazy for nostalgia,” he said. “However, my health and that of my fellow friends, neighbors, and beach-goers is more important.”
Charlie Farrell, who lives near Balboa Pier, said the prevailing winds blow soot and smoke into his house every day.
“Soot knows no boundaries,” he said. “As time goes by it gets harder and harder to breathe.”
The air gets worse as the night goes on, Farrell said, people start extinguishing the fires around 10 p.m. and “burn just about everything they don’t want to take home.”
The next day, he feels sick, tired, short of breath and left with a terrible headache.
“It’s a very traumatic experience,” he said.
The residents that live near the beach are the ones that went to council and filed the complaints, commissioner Esther Sanchez said.
“What it looks like to me, and the way it’s been presented, this is really a way of controlling the public,” and getting others off the city’s beaches, Sanchez said.
The suggested replacement activities, she continued, are geared more for local residents and would not likely drive visitors to the beach.
Sanchez also commented that there did not seem to be a comprehensive analysis or plan to address air quality.
She is interested in hearing what AQMD, the commission’s “sister agency,” has to say.
Lester revised staff’s recommendation “knowing what we know now” to not take action on Wednesday and instead wait until the AQMD meeting.
“We have a sister agency. We should recognize that we should wait for them to weigh in on the situation, certainly when it’s something that they deal with directly,” commissioner Brian Brennan said. “We’re not kicking the can down the road, we’re just getting more information and understanding that the experts that deal with this that have the money and the time and energy to study it would be bringing some of that to the table also, and I think that would really help our discussion.”