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Newport Beach bonfires get a reprieve for now, but could be gone before summer

The California Coastal Commission's report recommends that the City of Newport Beach not remove the beach fire pits.
California Coastal Commission
The California Coastal Commission's report recommends that the City of Newport Beach not remove the beach fire pits.

The California Coastal Commission has voted to postpone a decision on whether to grant Newport Beach's request to tear down its popular fire rings until the agency that oversees air quality makes a ruling on whether to maintain its exemption on beach bonfires.

A member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) told the commission meeting in San Diego that he was certain the agency would strike down the exemption.

Newport Beach has been trying for more than a year to remove 60 fire rings near Balboa Pier and Corona del Mar State Beach. The city says its received complaints from residents forced to inhale toxic smoke.

"When I arrive home at night the air is thick with the smell of smoke inside and outside of my home," said Charlie Farrell, who spoke at the Coastal Commission.

He said there are no fewer than 33 fire pits within a few hundred yards of his house on the Balboa Peninsula.

“The air immediately pinches and tightens my lungs," said Farrell. “As time goes by, it gets harder and harder to breathe. The air gets worse as the night goes on as people put the fires out between 10 and 11 P.M. That's when they burn just about everything they don't want to take home.”

Although outnumbered by fire ring opponents, some Newport Beach residents made the trip to San Diego to voice their support. More than 5,000 people signed an online petition to keep the fire rings.

"It's a sign, an icon of California living and it's for groups of people - family, churches, etc.,” said Janice Wallace.

She said people have been having bonfires in front of her house for more than four decades and she’s never been bothered by the smoke.

A Coastal Commission staff report came down on Wallace's side. It found that removing the rings would violate the state's Coastal Act, which requires lower-cost amenities enjoyed by the public to be preserved.

The report said there was no evidence that fire rings contribute to a public health problem and pointed out that bonfires are exempted by the agency that regulates local air quality, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD). But in recent days, some AQMD board members expressed surprise that their agency exempted bonfires.

The Coastal Commission voted unanimously to postpone its decision for 90 days to allow time for the AQMD consider the matter.

If the views of Dr. William Burke are any indication, the fire pits may not be around much longer.
"Don't come to me and say I need fire rings to have a good time,” said Burke, who serves on both the Coastal Commission and the AQMD board.

He said it's indisputable that fire pits are hazardous.
"For someone to come and tell me they want to toast marshmallows and hang out at the beach, I'm not against that anywhere,” said Burke. “But you cannot do that with people throwing plastic cups and plastic bags into the fire."

Burke said he's "100 percent certain" that the AQMD will lift its exemption on beach bonfires when it meets in May.