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La Jolla bonfires for hire ignite questions about what’s allowed and concerns about pollution

A Timeless Day offers bonfire parties at La Jolla’s Marine Street Beach in the company’s own portable fire pit.
(File)

Despite questions about their legality, a local company is continuing to offer bonfire parties at La Jolla’s Marine Street Beach, saying San Diego city employees have allowed it.

A local resident said he observed the bonfires several times a week from March through August. The parties are operated and advertised by San Diego-based A Timeless Day, run by Joe Barnes and Charlie Madruga.

According to onlookers, the events often draw about 30 people, with A Timeless Day providing a bonfire in its own portable fire pit and serving alcohol.

A local company is holding and promoting bonfire parties at Marine Street Beach in La Jolla, despite laws apparently against it.

Jose Ysea, public safety media services manager for the city, said no alcohol is allowed on city beaches.

Barnes and Madruga, who did not respond to requests for comment before a La Jolla Light article in August, said in a statement to the Light on Sept. 3 that “as per our website, we do not currently provide alcohol to our guests, as it is not allowed on San Diego beaches.”

On Aug. 24, the website stated that “a cooler full of alcoholic (local craft beer, wine, hard seltzers) and nonalcoholic drinks” would be provided. By Sept. 2, the wording had been changed to “a collection of gourmet mocktail mixing ingredients” would be served, along with food and fire supplies for the three-hour party, which costs $95 per person.

Barnes and Madruga further said Sept. 7 that they had not hosted an event at Marine Street Beach in weeks. They didn’t answer whether that was due to their suspending the parties or to a lack of bookings.

Barnes and Madruga also stated they did not start in March, nor had an event for up to 30 people.

The company’s website on Sept. 7 continued to list availability for bonfire parties with up to 50 spots through October.

Ysea said no beach bonfires are allowed outside of city-provided fire rings. Marine Street Beach does not have city-provided rings.

San Diego Municipal Code 63.20.5 says it is permissible, however, “to build a fire on a public beach in a portable barbecue device.”

City spokesman Tim Graham said that as of Sept. 2, he was unaware of any city investigation into A Timeless Day’s bonfire parties, nor had the company been cited.

The company’s statement read that “lifeguards have told us multiple times that there is no problem with bringing our personal fire pit, as long as the fire is 12 inches off the sand and that we properly dispose of any remaining ashes, which we do.”

Dorie DeFranco, a resident of La Jolla’s Barber Tract neighborhood, which includes Marine Street Beach, said she observed A Timeless Day’s bonfire parties before Aug. 24. She said lack of enforcement is a concern.

DeFranco, who is on a beach-fire task force composed of residents from coastal communities citywide, said the municipal code is unclear as to whether beach fires are allowed, as the section that says portable barbecues are permitted later states that “coals from any portable barbecue or similar device shall either be removed from the beach area or be deposited in a city-provided fire container or designated hot-coal container provided on the beach for such purposes.”

She said the phrase “or similar device” has been interpreted to mean portable fire pits.

Graham said “the distinction is that smaller barbecue devices used to cook food are allowed on the beach, provided they are self-contained, are above the sand and people remove any hot coals.”

“Bonfires for the purpose of keeping people warm or providing light at night must be in a city-provided fire ring,” Graham said.

Addressing A Timeless Day’s operations at Marine Street Beach, San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, said he opposes “any violation of city regulations and especially vendors that purposefully confuse customers and ignore local laws for personal gain.”

“In the weeks ahead,” he said, “I will be proposing amendments to the municipal code, asking city Parks & Recreation to ensure all beach signage is clear and consistent with the code and clarify enforcement authority.”

Barnes and Madruga said they “will continue to monitor changes to the city codes to make sure we remain in compliance. We will continue to be respectful of our city, our beaches, beach-goers and law enforcement.”

Health and safety worries

DeFranco said the continued presence of beach fires is problematic. She has spoken to many La Jolla organizations in an effort to garner support for a ban on wood- and charcoal-fueled beach fires. The La Jolla Town Council, La Jolla Community Planning Association, La Jolla Parks & Beaches, La Jolla Shores Association and Barber Tract Neighborhood Association have expressed support for such a ban at certain local beaches that lack fire rings.

DeFranco said wood and charcoal fires create many safety hazards at beaches all over San Diego but particularly at Marine Street Beach, even when portable devices are used. She and others have suggested that only propane be allowed because it is “cleaner” and “safer.”

“How are they logistically going to remove that [wood and coals] from the beach? They would have to pour water on it,” DeFranco said, noting that there are no coal receptacles at Marine Street Beach. “They would have to bring a bucket to douse it. Nobody is going to go through that effort.”

What happens, DeFranco said, is that people “just dump the coals onto the sand and cover them with sand and they leave it. I’m still finding some fires that are still hot in the morning because they haven’t been extinguished properly. … They are supposed to be extinguished with water, but people throw sand on it and they think it’s going to put it out.”

Many times, she said, someone walking on the sand the next day has suffered burns from still-hot coals.

Beach fires also cause high levels of pollution, according to Meinrat Andreae, an atmospheric chemist with UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography who lives in La Jolla Shores. Andreae has studied air pollution levels for years and said that on Aug. 23, the air quality monitoring station he operates at La Jolla Shores registered pollution of 100 micrograms per cubic meter.

That measurement is about eight times more than the standard listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for air that can be breathed without negative health impacts, he said, and 10 times more than World Health Organization guidelines.

The 2019 levels of air pollution created by beach fires at La Jolla Shores are the same today.
The 2019 levels of air pollution created by beach fires at La Jolla Shores, shown in red against the blue line of air quality measured where there are no fires, are the same today.
(Courtesy of Meinrat Andreae)

Andreae said a 2019 graph showing his measurements of La Jolla Shores beach-fire pollution levels in red, compared with a blue line measured at the Scripps Oceanography campus, where there are no fires, demonstrates that smoke from the fires “is a really serious problem.”

“The recent data look essentially identical,” he said.

Andreae and his wife, Tracey, wrote to LaCava on Aug. 30 to report the findings.

Their letter states that “it is important for neighborhood residents to be able to open their windows for ventilation without jeopardizing their health by breathing polluted air.” They asked LaCava to “address this very serious and ongoing problem.”

LaCava said in a statement to the Light that he has met with Meinrat Andreae and will schedule a site visit to “experience firsthand the proliferation of beach and park fires at La Jolla Shores. As a La Jollan, I am familiar with our beaches and the role they play for our community and beach-goers.”

“The burgeoning of fires in open containers or directly on the beach is unacceptable, especially the dumping of hot coals on the sand,” LaCava said. “Controlled beach fires within city-provided fire containers and portable barbecue devices for food preparation provide a reasonable and appropriate opportunity for beach-goers to responsibly enjoy beach fires.” ◆