La Jolla Shores board to consider beach-fire reduction


The La Jolla Shores Association (LJSA) is considering a proposal to reduce or eliminate wood fires from its beaches in favor of propane (smokeless) fires — and could vote on it as soon as its November meeting. La Jolla Shores resident Joe Gatto introduced the concept and presented his research during the board’s Oct. 10 meeting.

He said there were two problems associated with the wood-based fires: beach-goers bury their coals and burnt wood in the sand, which can be hot enough to cause burns even hours later; and noxious smoke from too many wood fires exceed state limits. Further, the current rules for fires, Gatto argues, are also hard to read and not enforceable.

“We’re not here to ban fires, just change the fuel,” he said.

In delving into the issue of coals being buried in the sand, he conducted a personal investigation using infrared and digital cameras, and pulled news clippings that report injuries nationwide.

“Because coals are buried in the sand, our Shores are littered with black coal. But worse than the cosmetics is that … fires can still burn under the sand and coals retain heat,” he said.

He showed an infrared image that he took, which showed an otherwise unsuspecting patch of sand, but registered at 139 degrees at 7:30 a.m. the morning after a fire. “The coals were supposed to be extinguished, but they weren’t, they were buried,” he said. “Why do people bury burning coals in the sand? Do they think the sand extinguishes the fire completely? Fires are supposed to be extinguished with water but are often not because people don’t bring buckets with them to put out fires.”

Gatto added there have been cases of serious burns at a rate of about 13 a year in San Diego reported to the Regional Burn Center at UC San Diego in recent years, noting only the most serious burns that cannot be treated in an emergency room are recorded.

Locally, in 2015, a two-year-old in La Jolla Shores was treated for second-degree burns during a daytime party after she stepped on hot sand from buried coals. The incident took place 30 feet from the playground.

Regarding the pervasive smoke, Gatto said people often bring personal fire pits that increase the number of fires beyond what the City suggests with its six sanctioned fire pits. “One night I counted 44 fires on the beach and most of them were in portable fire pits,” he said. Couple this number with the coastal winds coming from the ocean, the smoke makes its way to residences nearby.

Problems that stem from excessive smoke, he reports, include premature death, heart attacks, reduced lung development, asthma, etc.

“We are breathing this soot. This is going into our lungs,” Gatto said.

LJSA trustee Mary Coakley Munk noted that those that live in the area cannot open their windows or breathe when this is going on, and smoke alarms go off “all the time.”

The San Diego Municipal Code states, “It is unlawful for any person to build, maintain, use, or be within ten feet of a fire on any public beach that is not in a City-provided fire container. City-provided fire containers are concrete and pre-installed at certain beach locations where fires are allowed. Fires are prohibited on beaches where there is no City-provided fire container(s).”

However, they may be built in “a portable barbecue device” but “coals must be deposited in a City—provided fire container or designated hot coal container provided on the beach for such purposes.”

It also limits fuel to “charcoal, clean wood, or paper products,” and may not contain “material producing noxious fumes, odors, smoke, or leaving any type of solid residue other than ash.”

<FZ,1,0,8>Gatto opined, “The wording is troublesome to say the least and is unrealistic.”

An additional problem comes from the often-used “portable barbecue devices.” Gatto posed a hypothetical: “So my party is over and I have this fire, am I going to carry this hot portable device to a proper receptacle? It doesn’t happen. It’s not realistic to expect people to extinguish hot coals with water and carry the burning hot coals on a burning hot dish to a receptacle. People are not doing it.”

He added, “It’s impossible to enforce the rules because (law enforcement personnel) would have to be there in the two minutes that people are burying coals in the sand. Even if the police cruise the beach once a night, the chance of finding someone would be slim to none. A workable solution must be enforceable.”

Gatto offered two proposals, one that bans fires or flames except in city containers or on containers that use propane; and the other that says no wood fires altogether.

“Propane is smoke free and has an off valve and can be moved or disposed of more easily,” he said, and that California state parks passed similar rules limiting fires to propane.

According to a press release from the California Department of Parks and Recreation in June 2016, “All wood burning fires are prohibited in four San Diego region state beaches where established fire rings are not provided” and “beach visitors are being asked to plan ahead and obtain a clean burning, portable propane fire grill or butane burner with stable legs that can be raised at least six inches off the ground or sand. The use of nail-filled pallets, wood logs, kerosene, oil, charcoal briquettes, fire logs, newspapers or trees is prohibited. Charcoal grills are also phased out by this action at most beaches.”

On state beaches such as Carlsbad, fires and barbecues are limited to propane only.

Because similar measures have been implemented in other cities, LJSA trustee Joe Dicks suggested coming back with a “model” statute upon which he could base his request, at which time LJSA would vote on the matter.

La Jolla Shores Association next meets 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 14 on the Scripps Institution of Oceanography campus, Martin Johnson House, 8840 Biological Grade. It is the last meeting of the year, as the board is dark in December.