Beach bonfire

Pictures is a traditional Huntington Beach bonfire from a party in September. The South Coast Air Quality Management District is having companies companies look into developing prototype propane beach bonfire devices. (Chris Epting / November 20, 2013)

I jotted something down last summer at the South Coast Air Quality Management District hearing held in Newport Beach when the fire pit issue was raging.

It was something that agency Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein said: "We do feel that the future of bonfires is propane-based."

Wallerstein even made reference that night to the fact that the AQMD employees on hand had eaten hot dogs and s'mores cooked over propane earlier in the evening.

The public was not allowed to witness whatever propane devices they used. This, at a meeting where police, fire and state park officials all explained to the AQMD panel just how clueless they thought it was to even be considering propane at the beach.

But did the panel members care? Apparently not.

I had been to enough of these meetings at that point to have heard the AQMD members talk about propane with an almost fanatical lust. They would ask every public speaker what they thought about the idea of propane. And no matter how many times people shot it down, they would just keep pushing.

No matter how many times respected public officials would point out the expense, maintenance needs and potential liability of propane lines on the beach, they were all pointedly ignored.

So when I saw the news last week that the AQMD's Technology Committee had agreed to move forward with proposals that would give about $600,000 to two companies to develop prototype propane beach bonfire devices, I can't say that I was shocked.

If we have learned anything about the AQMD in this past year, it's that it seems to have a master plan developed around propane.

I know that publicly the agency is focusing on Newport Beach as a test zone for this unpopular premise, but we know where the idea is likely to lead if the "tests" are proclaimed to be successful.

We may have beaten the AQMD down several months ago, but by no means is the agency simply going away. I believe propane will be the excuse its members use eventually to try to ban every single beach bonfire in Southern California.

Why? Because they've made it too prominent a part of all their talking points since last spring, when this issue was first forced because a few Newport Beach residents were looking to clear their beaches.

While they swoon and get starry-eyed over the notion of propane, they haven't fully addressed who will pay for it and what the liabilities would be in the event of an explosion or other accident. The AQMD, as far as I know, has not cited one case of any specific sickness directly related to beach bonfires.

With all of the air issues in Southern California, there's a good reason this strikes so many of us as suspicious. To make this sort of investment in a propane solution for a problem that doesn't even exist illustrates just how irrational the AQMD's position is.

An official at AQMD stated this past spring that the beach bonfire issue was not even in its top 100 priorities and that coastal Orange County has the cleanest air in the district. Yet, the agency is still trying to figure out a way to get rid of the wood-burning pits.

It may say it's starting with a small test model and that cities will not be forced to partake in propane. But I think this is what the agency left the door open for in the summer. I think this is the beginning of its next political, agenda-driven push.

Many readers reached out to me after this recent news, and so last week I wrote AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood with the simple question: "A lot of readers are concerned over what they perceive as a new push by the AQMD to eliminate fire rings in Huntington Beach. For them, can you give me an assurance that this is not the case?"

I have yet to receive a response.

Based on its behavior, I didn't trust the AQMD last spring, and I certainly don't trust it now. Remember those words: "We do feel that the future of bonfires is propane-based."

It now appears as if the future may be closer than we even realized.

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Writing, illustrating contest

From my good friend Gail Page: Entries for the Friends of the Children's Library's annual Writing and Illustrating Contest, Imagine Something Different, are due at the Huntington Beach Library by Dec. 21. For more information, including the required contest entry form and complete rules, visit the children's department of the library or go to http://www.FOTCL.org. This is marvelous opportunity for student writers to gain experience and recognition.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.