AQMD Decides

Board Chairman William A. Burke, center, addresses members of the public during a meeting regarding a proposal that would restrict fire rings on Southland beaches. (KEVIN CHANG / Daily Pilot / July 12, 2013)

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Before a packed auditorium Friday afternoon, air quality regulators adopted divisive regulations on beach fire rings.

In what could be the end of an extensive debate that pitted concerns about wood smoke's health impacts against a beloved Southern California tradition, members of the South Coast Air Quality Management District voted 7 to 6 to approve a rule that will place new restrictions on the use of beach fire rings.

The rule is a softened version of an initial proposal that would have banned beach bonfires outright within the South Coast Air Quality Management District's jurisdiction, which includes all of Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Instead, the rule establishes a 700-foot buffer zone between bonfires and homes and "no-burn days" when air quality is poorer than usual, and gives cities more explicit authority to decide on a local level whether they allow fire rings within their limits. In an amendment added after the proposal was first released last month, the rule also included a paragraph that directs staff to avoid further restricting fire rings in the future.

Under the rule, Newport Beach, whose application to the California Coastal Commission to remove its fire rings first spurred the AQMD to look into a possible ban, can get rid of its 60 fire pits near the Balboa Pier and at Corona del Mar State Beach.

But whether the city will decide to take steps to remove all of its rings, move some of them, or move ahead with a proposed alternative fuel fire ring pilot program, remains to be seen, City Manager Dave Kiff said after the meeting.

He said he expects the City Council to hold several study sessions to help determine a path forward.

The AQMD vote followed an hours-long parade of local officials, state legislators and Orange County residents pitching in their two cents, even as Board Chairman William Burke tried to speed the meeting along by asking fire ring supporters to speak only if they felt a "burning" need.

"I understand everybody out there doesn't want this rule," he said. "I'm just amazed very few people are here in support of the rule today."

For the majority of the speakers — some of whom sported black T-shirts with "Save our bonfire rings," printed on them in white lettering — the proposal that staff members deemed a compromise based on public input was still too much regulation.

"These beaches are regional," said Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer. "If you're up and down the 55 [Freeway], you don't go to Huntington Beach."

Costa Mesans — like many others living along the 55 corridor, which pours drivers heading for the coast directly into Newport Beach — enjoy bonfire access close to home, he said.

But for Newport residents living yards away from the beach, like Frank Peters, who has been one of the fires' most outspoken critics, the vote was a victory.

"I'm pinching myself," he said, after the meeting. "It's been a long journey."