Where There’s Smoke, There’s Ire

BY ON July 1, 2013

Cartoon of clams holding protest signs. "not more fire pits!" "Keep our beaches smoke free!"

The beach bonfire is a much-loved tradition on Southern California’s dunes. After all, what could be more fun than a day of sand and sun followed by a clambake and a batch of smokey s’mores?

But a preliminary study released this spring from Southern California’s air-quality board has fingered hundreds of fire pits along the coastlines of Orange County and Los Angeles as a significant source of air pollution. With more and more people flocking to the beaches in recent decades, locals suspect the smoke from the bonfires is fueling a rise in respiratory ailments. According to the Wall Street Journal, a single pit can, in one evening, ’emit as much fine-particulate pollution as “one heavy-duty diesel truck driving 564 miles.”‘

Faced with these troubling findings, the air-quality regulators proposed banning the bonfires. A fire pit firestorm erupted, predictably, pitting local residents against local businesses. The bonfires may generate soot, but they also generate loot, drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists who snap up pre-assembled ‘bonfire kits’ to help them scratch that Gidget itch.

And then there’s the gnarly natives, the bona-fide beach boys. They aren’t ready to relinquish their cherished ritual, either, just because it’s become a public health hazard. One surfer-turned-legislator, state Assemblyman Travis Allen (R, Orange County), responded to the proposed ban with the rallying cry “Keep your mitts off our pits!” Allen has proposed legislation to protect the fire rings on the grounds that they are “integral to our culture and beach lifestyle.”

Joe Shaw, a Huntington Beach city councilman, defended the fire pit tradition as the very epitome of “the California dream.” And U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.) declared the bonfire battle “an ultimate freedom issue.”

Evidently, in Southern California, the right to bake clams is on a par with the right to bear arms. Last week, all this buffeting over bonfires yielded a revised proposal that would rely on buffer zones, allowing “wood-burning fire rings that are at least 700 feet from the closest homes,” as the Los Angeles Times reports. The South Coast Air Quality Management District’s staff members cited reports that indicated that a 700-foot buffer would be sufficient to reduce relative exposure by 98%.

The regulators are also exploring the possibility of switching to ‘alternative’ fire rings fueled by propane or natural gas. Will these measures please the fire pit stokers and appease the bonfire chokers? I’m guessing it’s not an accident that the district has scheduled the vote on this issue for mid-July. Who would dare throw cold water on everyone’s Fourth of July beachside barbecues?

Cartoon: Danny Shanahan


TOPICS: California, Clean Air Rules and Regulations, Politics, Pollution, Soot