Fire Pits

Friends huddle around a fire pit at Big Corona State Beach in Corona del Mar. The South Coast Air Quality Management District is looking into allowing cities to replace wood-burning rings with ones that use alternative fuels. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / July 11, 2013)

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Air quality regulators are set to take a first look next week at proposals that could allow Newport Beach and other cities to replace wood-burning fire rings with alternatively fueled ones.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has floated the idea of partnering with Newport on such a pilot program, though agency spokesman Sam Atwood said Thursday that any jurisdiction interested in testing non-wood-burning fire rings would be welcome to participate.

"This is going to be completely voluntary in terms of a city or county deciding if they want to install these fire rings," Atwood said.

The district's five-member Technology Committee is expected to discuss the proposals at a meeting Nov. 15, weighing whether to pass them along to the agency's full board for a vote next month.

Atwood said that at the meeting, staff members will present the proposals and make a recommendation about which should be funded and how much money should be allotted for them.

He added that safety was "paramount" to the discussion.

"If we can't find a technology and a device that's going to be safe on the beach, we're simply not going to proceed with the project," he said.

Newport Beach officials have expressed interest in the possibility of an alternative-fuel fire ring demonstration program, however, that would first require a round of vetting at the city level — likely at a series of public meetings.

Atwood wouldn't disclose the number of proposals that his agency received or any details contained therein. But, he said, the options "pretty much" come down to propane or natural gas.

The proposals were solicited as part of an effort to mitigate the negative health impacts of the wood-burning beach bonfires without infringing on what many have called a Southern California tradition steeped in nostalgia.

After months of heated debate, the district approved new regulations on beach bonfires, establishing a 700-foot buffer zone between bonfires and homes, and "no-burn days" when air quality is poorer than usual. The vote also gave cities more explicit authority to decide on a local level whether they allow fire rings within their limits.

Neighbors of fire rings at Newport beaches lobbied to have them removed, citing respiratory health problems and ultimately leading the city to move forward with efforts to get rid of them, but Huntington Beach residents and officials rallied to keep the hundreds of bonfires on that city's beaches burning.

Newport's City Council had voted to remove the city's fire rings but in July withdrew a Coastal Commission application to do just that.

The rule the air-quality agency ultimately adopted is a softened version of a proposal that would have banned beach bonfires outright within the SCAQMD's jurisdiction, which includes all of Orange and Los Angeles counties.

As part of that compromise, the district board also requested ideas for fire rings fueled by gas or propane that could safely take the place of wood-burning rings.