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Marine Street and La Jolla Shores beach fires come under scrutiny from local groups

Remnants from a beach fire are scattered in the sand at Marine Street Beach in La Jolla.
(Courtesy)

La Jolla Parks & Beaches board creates a subcommittee to seek enforcement.

As fires raged across Northern California, the topic of fire was brought home to La Jolla when the Parks & Beaches advisory group discussed illegal bonfires at area beaches during its Aug. 24 meeting. Though the focus started with Marine Street Beach, it quickly spread to La Jolla Shores and what changes could be made to address the issue across La Jolla.

To that end, trustees decided to form a subcommittee with representatives of the Parks & Beaches and La Jolla Shores Association boards and affected residents.

According to the San Diego municipal code, fires are permitted at all city beaches if they are in a city-provided fire container or fire ring or in a portable barbecue. Residents in the Marine Street area said that since there are no fire containers on the beach, any fire there is illegal.

And with no fire rings or hot-coal containers, the hot remnants often are buried in the sand and can harm unsuspecting beach-goers who step on them.

LJP&B President Ann Dynes said residents of Sea Lane (the end of which provides access to Marine Street Beach) have had “enormous discussion” in recent months about problems such as fires on the beach, underage drinking and parking enforcement.

“The city has responded very well in many ways to the chaos that is there, but the chaos there is shared across many of our local beaches,” she said.

Trustee Janet Stratford Collins said the city, working with neighbors, has increased its trash pickup frequency and replaced an unsafe railing but that little has been done to address the fire issue.

“People are still having fires on the beach and leaving the debris,” she said. Some use the charred remains to put graffiti on nearby seawalls, she said.

Resident Holly McMillan said she has seen an increase in fires and the amount of hot coals left on the beach in the morning, which is “when children and families are there.”

Burnt coals are pictured in the sand at Marine Street Beach.
(Courtesy)

Resident Dorie DeFranco said the mechanism of enforcement is for residents to call the San Diego Police Department’s non-emergency phone number and be directed to the Fire-Rescue Department, which often extinguishes the fires. Lifeguards and rangers don’t work after dark, when beach fires typically take place.

Five days before the LJP&B meeting, Officer Brandon Broaddus, neighborhood relations officer for the Police Department’s Northern Division, which includes La Jolla, spoke during a Town Council meeting in Pacific Beach, where beach fires also are causing concern. He said the phenomenon is widespread. During the weekend of Aug. 14-16 alone, Broaddus said, police beach teams dealt with 52 separate incidents, resulting in at least one citation.

Broaddus said first responders dispatched to the scene from the Fire-Rescue Department lack authority to cite violators. He said the escalation of the problem is outpacing officials’ ability to confront it.

“I think if one person is able to do it down on the beach, they’re going to let their friends know,” he said.

DeFranco said “having fires at [Marine Street Beach] is not typical. I don’t know what happened this year, but it is crazy.”

Officials and residents at the Pacific Beach meeting generally agreed that the spark for so many beach fires this year is the scarcity of activities for a summer evening with the closure of bars and entertainment venues because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Everybody’s on the beach,” Broaddus said. “It’s like the Fourth of July every weekend.”

Residents of an area known as La Jolla Woods near Cliffridge Park are joining a list of groups and individuals looking for reduced fire risk at Pottery Canyon.

In La Jolla, the issue is not limited to Marine Street. The La Jolla Shores Association took up the issue of illegal fires in 2018. The Shores beach has some fire rings, but residents said they’ve counted more fires than there are rings, indicating some are illegal.

In 2015, a 2-year-old in La Jolla Shores was treated for second-degree burns suffered during a daytime party when she stepped on hot sand containing buried coals. The incident occurred 30 feet from a playground.

LJSA President Janie Emerson said residents also face the issue of smoke coming into their homes. “It has gotten so bad at night, we have to close our windows because you literally can’t breathe, the smoke is so bad,” she said.

LJSA trustee Andi Andreae agreed that “this is not something to be taken lightly. This is a serious health hazard and a loss of quality of life for hundreds of residents near the beach.”

But some LJP&B trustees said there is a history behind fires on the beach in La Jolla.

“My feeling is that it is right of passage in California that you have a bonfire in the summer. It’s part of people’s heritage that grew up here,” Melinda Merryweather said. “At Windansea, people clean up after themselves. The trouble with Marine Street is that it is a radical beach … people spend all day there. It’s a different kind of beach.”

Ken Hunrichs said: “I oppose any attempt to try and ban beach fires. I think it’s an overreaction to a combination of problems. … The beach fires itself is not causing the problem, so to group that in with all the other activities we find objectionable [would be inappropriate]. The beach fires are the least objectionable.”

Emerson suggested the groups work together to discuss the issue further and request action as a united front because it affects “all our beaches.”

LJP&B member Tom Brady added that the boards could craft a position asking for more enforcement, and, if that cannot be provided, seek suggestions the city might have.

The new subcommittee will meet in coming weeks and report back with its findings.

Writer Steven Mihailovich contributed to this report.