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Environment Report: A Brief, Fiery Investigation of Beach Bonfire Rules

A bonfire in Pacific Beach
A short-lived bonfire in Pacific Beach on May 8, 2021. / Photo by MacKenzie Elmer

Beach bonfires flared forth this Saturday as the sun fell behind a distant marine layer and San Diego’s desert chill struck the bones of all witnesses along Pacific Beach.

Suddenly, some of the fires within eyesight disappeared. The distant buzz of a patrol ATV sealed our own fire’s fate as a mustachioed and apologetic lifeguard handed our group a bucket to douse the flames.

He informed us that fires like ours were no longer permitted on city of San Diego beaches. During the pandemic, law enforcement had turned a blind eye to the beloved practice, he said, but now that the world is reopening there are far too many people leaving hot sand and ashes behind.

“Spread the word,” he said. That’s precisely what I’ll do, but not without a little investigation!

Article 3 Chapter 6 of the San Diego Municipal Code says fires must be in a city-provided fire container. Those are permanent city-built concrete rings that are extremely rare (I’ve only noticed them at Ocean Beach). To get one, you have to stand guard several hours before sunset, like a pimpled teenager camping outside Best Buy on Black Friday.

Beyond that, you can also “build a fire on a public beach in a portable barbecue device.” The city’s website [1] offers a less-specific interpretation. It says “fire pits” are provided in summertime and available on a first come, first served basis, presumably referring to the “fire container” in city code. It then says “open beach fires outside containers are prohibited at all San Diego beaches.”

Without digging into the municipal code, a citizen Googling whether beach fires are legal would likely land on the website and interpret that to mean fires built directly on the sand aren’t allowed. The website seems to encourage the use of fire pits, not require it.

The question is, what does the city mean both by “fire pit” or “container” or even “barbecue device?” Etymologically, a barbecue originally was a wooden frame on posts [2]. Webster’s Dictionary defines barbecue as a portable fireplace or roasting whole animals over a spit.

Regardless, the mustachioed harbinger of darkness admonished our Ace Hardware metal fire pit outfit with a grill and retractable legs (something we were quite impressed by until then). We packed up and left.

It’s unclear who directed San Diego’s lifeguards to start cracking down. I tried to reach lifeguard officials Monday but they didn’t immediately answer their phone or email.

Councilwoman Jen Campbell, who represents the Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and Ocean Beach communities, said in an emailed statement that “any ban of beach fires would require an amendment to the city’s municipal code and, ultimately, Coastal Commission approval.” But she’s heard complaints about illegal fires since last summer, she added, and intends to work to increase education and enforcement of the code this summer.

Councilman Joe LaCava, who represents the La Jolla through Torrey Pines coastal areas, said in an emailed statement that he supports beach bonfires and publicly advocated against city proposals to remove fire rings years ago.

“Beach fires, conducted under the city’s strict regulations, provide a unique recreational opportunity for families and family-oriented events,” LaCava wrote. “While I understand there are some areas with persistent problems of uncontrolled fires and careless discarding of hot coals, it would be a true loss to ban fires from all beaches. My office is looking into how to effectively address isolated problems.”

In April, the La Jolla Town Council voted to ban wood and charcoal beach fires in favor of those fueled by propane, according to the La Jolla Light [3]. A disgruntled Windansea Beach resident claimed the wood-burning fires caused pollution and safety hazards. Hot coals burned beachgoers’ feet and the smoke was a threat to senior citizens and children, the resident said.

Propane would solve pollution and burn risks, the town council agreed, which apparently had pressure from multiple La Jolla organizations to ban such fires at select local beaches.

Though wood burning does produce a large amount of particulate air pollution, propane is not pollution-free. Propane still dumps a lot of carbon dioxide [4] into the atmosphere and is a greenhouse gas that causes the planet to warm up faster than normal.

I’m not entirely sure, but it seems a propane-only requirement would actually violate city code. The code explicitly states that it’s only permissible to burn “charcoal, clean wood or paper products.” Plus, municipal code trumps La Jolla Town Council decisions anyway.

That leaves the issue of hot coals on the sand. There seems to be a lack of conveniently placed concrete containers in which to throw hot coals, as required by municipal code. That could help citizens be better stewards of their beach.

So, it appears snubbing my beach fire wasn’t entirely justified because the language is unclear. There’s a chance that my experience was some strange fluke. But we’ll see how enforcement does or doesn’t change as we enter the busy summer months when scores of COVID-19 stir-crazy easterners travel here for a bit of sea, spray and flame.

The Fate of Pop-Up Outdoor Dining Structures Is Grim

I recently learned hundreds of the outdoor dining structures restauranteurs built to save business during COVID-19 will have to come down [5]. With the dry and sunny coastal desert climate San Diego enjoys, outdoor dining seems like a no-brainer.

The City Council can extend the life of the temporary outdoor business permits that fast-tracked a typically long and expensive process to put a little patio in the street.

But city officials told me that the structures in the public rights of way are technically not permitted and can’t remain forever because the state building code has strict rules for permanent buildings.

Alas.

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