S.D. panel backs code changes to provide ‘clarity’ on beach fires, including propane-only outside city rings

Illegal beach fires that leave burnt remnants in the sand have been a concern at San Diego beaches, including in La Jolla.

The San Diego City Council’s Environment Committee voted unanimously May 26 to start the process to change the San Diego municipal code to clarify the dos and don’ts of having a fire on the beach.

Existing phrases such as “stoves, ovens or similar facilities” make it difficult to discern what is allowed, city staff member Brian Elliott said. “For the purposes of clarity and safety, the proposed amendment would preserve the ability to … cook on the beach” in propane-fueled devices outside of city-provided fire rings, he said.

Larger beach bonfires can only be in city-provided rings.

Currently, the municipal code says it is permissible “to build a fire on a public beach in a portable barbecue device” or “similar device.” It also says fires may be built in city-provided containers or in portable barbecue devices using “charcoal, clean wood or paper products.”

Under the proposal, a portable device must be propane-fueled, though the current permitted use of fire rings would not change.

Other proposed changes would define “propane-fueled device” and replace phrases such as “public beach” with “beach area.”

City Councilman Joe LaCava, who chairs the Environment Committee and whose District 1 includes La Jolla, said the community and city staff and public safety officers “have all called for the need for greater clarity in our municipal code.” He said the proposal provides “clear, balanced understanding” of what will be allowed.

The public safety issue involves beach-goers building fires outside of city-provided rings and burying the remnants in the sand, where they can remain hot for hours and injure those who unknowingly walk the beach. Elliott noted that in August 2018, a toddler stepped on hot coals buried in the sand and needed emergency care.

Elliott said the current “confusing and often contradictory” language in the municipal code makes it difficult for public safety personnel to enforce the rules.

Portable propane-fueled devices “are easy to transport and limit the potential of embers to be buried in the sand and are easily identified by public safety officers,” Elliott said.

He added that the use of grills in adjacent parks would not change.

A slide shows the fire devices proposed to be allowed on San Diego beaches.
A slide presented to the San Diego City Council’s Environment Committee shows the fire devices proposed to be allowed on city beaches.
(Courtesy of Brian Elliott)

During public comment, operators of companies that facilitate beach outings that include bonfires spoke against the proposal. Some companies have their own portable fire pit.

Speakers in favor of the plan said wood fires create hazardous particulates that float into the air and that the smoke from wood fires poses a health threat.

Responding to a question from Councilman and Environment Committee member Raul Campillo, Michael Tully, deputy director of the Developed Regional Parks Division, said city-provided fire rings are cleared out and cleaned by a Parks & Recreation Department crew, and onsite staff and grounds maintenance workers report other embers and remnants to the cleanup team to remove.

Councilwoman and Environment Committee Vice Chairwoman Marni von Wilpert supported the proposal because she said it gives residents and visitors clarity on what is allowed. But she asked whether more fire rings could be added to provide all who want to have a beach bonfire the opportunity to do so legally.

Elliott said he would “work with the community” to determine whether there needs to be an adjustment to the number of fire rings.

The request before the Environment Committee was to support the city attorney’s office working with the appropriate city departments, coastal council Districts 1 and 2 and other city staff to conduct legal analysis and prepare an ordinance amending the municipal code regarding beach fires in city-provided rings and portable propane-fueled devices. The ordinance would go before the full City Council for consideration and approval.

In La Jolla, various community groups have sought solutions to the beach fire issue for the past two years. The La Jolla Shores Association, La Jolla Town Council, La Jolla Community Planning Association, La Jolla Parks & Beaches and Barber Tract Neighborhood Association have expressed support for a ban on wood and charcoal fires at local beaches.

In September, the Parks & Beaches board voted to write a letter to the city asking that only propane-fueled fires be permitted at Barber Tract beaches, including Marine Street Beach, which does not have city-provided rings.

After the Environment Committee vote, San Diego Marine Safety Capt. Maureen Hodges said in a statement that “lifeguards routinely put out fires and remove hazardous debris from illegal beach fires that could injure beach patrons. Changing the municipal code could help prevent illegal beach fires and make the beaches safer for everyone who visits.” ◆