Published July 11, 2013
A tradition dating back to the 1940s -- bonfire pits on the beaches of southern California -- is being targeted by state officials who say the popular pastime is no longer acceptable because of global warming and negative health consequences.
"One fire pit burning one night, a few hours, a couple bundles of wood, emits as much as one average diesel truck on the road today driving over 500 miles," said Dr. Philip Fine, of the Southern California Air Quality Management District (AQMD).
AQMD staff recommended banning open fires at the beach and removing the hundreds of concrete fire pits that stretch from San Diego to Los Angeles.
The proposal drew fire from beachgoers, who often show up early in the morning to reserve a spot.
"I would be super bummed if they banned bonfires on the beach because it's such a California thing," said Los Angeles resident Liz Corona. "It's such a fun, social thing to do with friends. And, um, I feel like it's not really doing any harm, so why would they ban them?"
Local regulators may be easing off the proposal, and plan to vote on a compromise shortly.
But to the air quality police, the harm is evident. Air quality monitors miles from the beach pick up tiny particulates and carcinogens from burning wood that damage health.
"There's a lot of studies that definitely show that wood smoke, as well as just particulate matter in general, are very harmful to health," Fine said. "There's people living very close to these fire pits who tell us that they have smoke in their house, that they have respiratory problems, and this causes them to aggravate those respiratory problems."
Initially, many thought the rules would go through without much opposition. Beachgoers are not an especially vocal or organized lobby. Leaf-blowers and gas-powered weed wackers cause far more air pollution than beach bonfires, but California chose not to regulate them after Hispanic lawmakers protested on behalf of landscapers.
"We're just out here, having fun, hanging out, not doing anything bad," said Cristi Valencia, as she put another hot dog on the fire at Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey, Calif. "There's so many other ways we can protect the environment, this just doesn't seem like a very good one."
After some county supervisors in Los Angeles and Orange County protested, the AQMD backed off a bit. Under a compromise, only those pits within 700 feet of a home must be removed. And fires would be permitted unless the region's air quality is already considered unhealthful.
The AQMD board is expected to vote on the compromise recommendation Friday.