Regional air-quality regulators floated a compromise this week in the face of fierce debate over the South Coast Air Quality Management District's proposed ban on beach fire rings.
An updated rule change proposal released Thursday night softens an earlier iteration of the proposed rule — which would have banned wood-burning fire rings from beaches in Orange and Los Angeles counties — by creating "buffer zones" between fire rings and homes and allowing for greater local control.
District officials announced that they are working with the city of Newport Beach on a test run of "alternative fuel" fire rings, which would probably run on propane or natural gas.
While Newport Beach officials have pushed to remove their city's rings on grounds they pose a health risk to nearby residents, Huntington Beach officials have led a charge to save the bonfires, which they say are a rich Southern California tradition — not to mention a major draw for tourists.
Since the district proposed the ban in late March, state lawmakers, local officials and residents throughout both counties have weighed in on the debate over the fire rings, which, over the course of the debate, have been likened to apple pie, carpet bombing in Vietnam and magic.
The district board voted Friday morning to consider the issue at a special meeting July 12, though the proposed rule changes wouldn't go into effect until March 1, 2014.
The revised proposal would allow wood-burning fire rings that are at least 700 feet from the closest homes, at least 100 feet from each other or at least 50 feet apart if there are 15 or fewer fire rings within a city's boundaries.
District spokesman Sam Atwood said that the 700-feet figure was chosen based on air-quality dispersion studies.
According to staff reports, he said, "about 700 feet away from the source, you reduce relative exposure by 98%," which staff members felt was a sufficient drop in health hazard.
Under the proposed rule, about 30 rings located less than 700 feet from the Huntington-By-The-Sea mobile home park near Pacific Coast Highway between Beach Boulevard and Newland Street would either have to be removed or moved to locations that would put them at least 100 feet apart.
Atwood said about 10 rings at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point, between two and four rings at Capistrano Beach in Dana Point and between two and four rings at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro would also have to be removed or shifted.
All 60 fire rings in Newport Beach, he added, would need to be moved.
"Aside from that," he said, "in our analysis all the other existing fire pits would meet the requirements of the buffer zone [and] therefore would not be affected."
In something of a coup for Newport Beach and Orange County officials, who advocated for increased local control, the new proposal would allow individual counties or cities to remove their own fire rings if they find that they constitute a nuisance as defined by state code.
Atwood said counties and cities already had the authority to declare exposure to wood smoke a nuisance, but the revised rule would prevent "any other government body from being able to supersede" a fire pit ban.
That includes the California Coastal Commission, which put off ruling on whether to approve Newport Beach's application to remove its fire rings. Discussion about the application was what spurred the AQMD to take up the issue.
The new proposal would also make beach fires subject to the same air-quality threshold as "no-burn days" that restrict residential fireplaces, typically during the winter in inland areas.
Atwood said that in beach areas, where breezes dissipate particulate matter, "it's not expected to be a frequent occurrence. Last winter, he said, one day would have qualified as a no-burn day at the beach.
Charcoal barbecues and propane fires would be allowed on beaches under the revised proposal, which defines beaches as "a public coastal area marked by an accumulation of sand" — so bonfires at campsites close to beaches, like some of the fire rings at Doheny, would be exempt from the rule.
The district has long pitched propane fires as an alternative to more hazardous wood-burning ones, and agency staff members are working with Newport Beach to test 10 fire rings that would run on an alternative fuel to wood, a city news release said Friday afternoon.
Atwood said that although the district plans to fund the project, he didn't know yet how much it would cost.
According to the Newport news release, the demonstration would last about six months — with five rings each at Big Corona beach and near the Balboa Pier — during which time the AQMD would continue monitoring air quality.
If the non-wood burning rings are found to result in lower particulate matter than wood-burning fires, the city and the district would work together to make the test rings permanent and potentially expand the program.
Reactions to the new proposal were mixed.
Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry is happy with the compromise.
"We are pleased that the AQMD has developed a rule with the flexibility to accommodate both the coastal cities that wish to keep all of their fire rings and Newport Beach that desires to address the health and quality-of-life concerns of our residents," he said in a statement.
Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, who also serves on the AQMD board, added in a statement: "The health impacts are clear, but we also need to preserve the Southern California beach experience."
Huntington Beach officials were concerned that the city, which has hundreds of fire rings, could still lose a several bonfires.
Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Matthew Harper said he wouldn't support an amendment that would remove any of the rings in the city. He plans to be at a June 13 public hearing in Newport Beach.
"These bureaucrats can't control themselves with wanting to micromanage our lives," he said. "Can't we just enjoy the fire rings with friends and family without worrying about these people coming after us?"
State Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach), who has been vocal in support of keeping fire rings, said in a statement that he opposed "any attempt by the South Coast AQMD to restrict access to California's beaches and our beach lifestyle traditions."
Frank Peters, a Corona del Mar resident who has long advocated for the removal of all fire rings, said the proposed changes don't go far enough.
"There's the science and the politics," he said Friday morning. "The 700 feet — it's all they could defend. ... They could've had all the science in the world."
Still, it was "nice to see data" that he said validates his and his wife, Barbara's, longstanding respiratory health concerns.
And ultimately, Peters added, "I guess we're not disappointed. We've got a compromise."