La Jolla Shores Association stokes efforts to extinguish wood and charcoal beach fires

Meinrat Andreae, an atmospheric chemist, suggests switching to propane fires like this on local beaches.
Meinrat Andreae, an atmospheric chemist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, suggests switching to propane fires like this on local beaches, saying wood and charcoal fires cause dangerous air pollution.
(Courtesy of Meinrat Andreae)

Scripps Oceanography scientist says air pollution from the fires ‘reaches levels that are astronomical on a public health scale.’


The La Jolla Shores Association boosted its support for ongoing efforts of a beach fires task force to eliminate wood and charcoal fires from local beaches.

“This is just to keep putting it in front of the City Council and the mayor,” said LJSA President Janie Emerson, who said the group would send a letter to the city of San Diego.

Air pollution from the fires “reaches levels that are astronomical on a public health scale,” Meinrat Andreae, a task force member, Shores resident and atmospheric chemist with UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said during LJSA’s Sept. 8 meeting online.

LJSA also lent its support to the beach fires group in 2020, and Andreae was invited back to present more details on pollution from beach fires.

Andreae has measured air pollution at Shores beaches daily for years. The typical annual air pollution levels in San Diego hover around 14 micrograms per cubic meter, well above the World Health Organization standard for healthy air, which is 10 or fewer.

Andreae noted that measurements have peaked at 257 micrograms. “Exceedances by multiples of the standard are very typical here and happen basically every day,” he said.

“The fires are out of control,” said Shores resident Mike McCormack, who added that he walks the beach daily, often tallying the number of fires there. On Sept. 4, he counted 44 beach fires; on Aug. 28, there were 55, he said.

Particulate matter from wood fire smoke measures smaller than 2.5 microns, “too small to see with the naked eye,” Andreae said. But, he added, it “can actually get deep down into the lungs and transition into your bloodstream.”

Particulate matter from the smoke is composed of tar, a “nasty mixture” of organic compounds found in cigarette smoke, as well as carcinogenic compounds, carbon monoxide and substances known as reactive oxidant species, which trigger inflammation, Andreae said.

“Air pollution doesn’t affect just your lungs, but it actually affects all your body, and much of that actually goes through this mechanism of inflammation,” he said.

The inflammation then “leads to coronary heart disease, to heart attacks, strokes, blood clotting,” Andreae said. “Most of the mortality” from air pollution is due to cardiovascular disease, he added.

About 200,000 people per year in the United States die prematurely from exposure to air pollution, he said.

LJSA board member Phil Wise said he’d like to know “how many residents of The Shores have passed away due to smoke inhalation [from beach fires] in the last 10 years.”

“That’s a question that you basically can’t answer because that’s not part of the way statistics are done, the way epidemiology is done,” Andreae said. “It’s not particularly relevant because, in fact, many of the people who get exposed are not Shores residents but are actually the beach users themselves.”

Members of the La Jolla Shores Association discuss beach fire pollution during the group's Sept. 8 meeting.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

LJSA board member Mary Coakley Munk agreed, saying: “This isn’t just about the people who live in The Shores. When you look at [Kellogg] Park, almost every day during the summer every person in that park … is affected by being in the middle of all that [smoke].”

Andreae said “the high-impact period” for beach fires is from midday and early afternoon to midnight. “And that’s, of course, when you would like to open your windows,” he said. “I’m already smelling it here in my room here, and we’ll be forced to close our windows within minutes to keep the air pollution out.”

“What we’d like to propose [is] if people could switch to propane fuel as a way to sit around and enjoy a beach fire,” Andreae said. “Then they could have the same fun, but with almost no pollution.”

Some La Jollans have raised objections to the idea of eliminating wood and coal fires, citing concerns about overregulation and doing away with a fun tradition.

Emerson said “the big issue is that people are having fires outside of the designated fire rings,” which the city has stated is the only approved location for a beach bonfire. It also is permissible to build a fire at a beach in a portable barbecue device to cook food, the city says.

Some people are building fires in the sand and then covering them with sand, “not putting them out properly,” Emerson said.

Beach fires task force member Dorie DeFranco, who lives near Marine Street Beach in the Barber Tract neighborhood, said “what we really need is enforcement.”

Steve Hadley, representing San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, said LaCava is “asking the police to spend more time in the evenings on the Shores and Marine Street [beaches]. We’re hoping they will come after hours and actually address some of these illegal fires.”

Hadley said “we’re asking the city to get all the heads together and articulate the city rules with a coherent voice.”

Andreae said “having air that is healthy to breathe and water that is healthy to drink are basic human rights. And I think the city owes the residents of all of the city … to make [healthy air and water] available to them.”

A motion to support the beach fires task force efforts to curtail air pollution passed, with Wise voting against.

DeFranco said the LJSA letter will add weight to those already submitted by the La Jolla Town Council, La Jolla Community Planning Association, La Jolla Parks & Beaches and Barber Tract Neighborhood Association expressing support for a ban on wood and coal fires at local beaches.

The La Jolla Shores Association next meets at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13, online or at a location to be determined. For more information, visit