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San Diego explicitly bans wood fires on city beaches outside designated rings

Beach-goers sit around a small fire they built using a couple of wooden logs at La Jolla Shores in August.
(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Backers in La Jolla and elsewhere say the code changes will improve safety and air quality. Critics contend they will make beach bonfires too expensive for many and that an education campaign would have been better.

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San Diego elected leaders voted Dec. 13 to explicitly ban wood bonfires on city beaches unless those fires are inside designated rings — an action that many community groups in La Jolla have long advocated.

Under the City Council’s 8-0 decision (with Councilwoman Vivian Moreno absent), charcoal barbecuing is still allowed on grassy areas next to city beaches, officials said.

The ban rewrites a vague section of the municipal code to state that the only beach fires allowed outside of designated rings are those fueled by propane, which leave no dangerous embers and produce less smoke.

Because the policy includes an ordinance in addition to municipal code changes, it won’t take effect until 30 days after the council approves it a second time in January.

Hotels and other private businesses that lease city land are exempt from the new policy, so they still will be allowed to have wood fires outside city fire rings.

While the municipal code may be strictly interpreted as already banning beach fires outside city-designated rings, city officials say it’s important to update the code for clarity and because wood fires have been allowed outside of those rings for many years.

Many La Jolla beaches, such as Marine Street Beach and La Jolla Shores, do not have city-provided fire rings, and local residents have said fires on the sand pose a safety hazard because hot remnants left behind can harm unsuspecting beach-goers who step on them. Some also have complained of air pollution from such fires.

City officials said the new policy will reduce burn injuries from smoldering wood underneath the sand, improve air quality in beach neighborhoods and clarify rules for beach users as well as police seeking to crack down on illegal fires.

Critics, including companies that create bonfires for tourists, said a safety education campaign would have been a better choice than a crackdown. They also said many low-income families won’t be able to afford devices for propane fires and will be shut out if the limited number of city rings are occupied.

Bonfire parties at Marine Street Beach run by a local company using its own portable fire pit raised questions last year about what is allowed on city beaches.

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.

Though city spokesman Jose Ysea told the La Jolla Light at the time that no beach bonfires are allowed outside of city-provided rings, the municipal code said it is permissible “to build a fire on a public beach in a portable barbecue device.”

Another city spokesman, Tim Graham, attempted to clarify, saying “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.”

City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, said in a statement after the council’s decision that it isn’t a ban on beach fires but rather “the preservation of the safe enjoyment of an iconic San Diego beach activity.”

“Previous confusing language [in the municipal code] made determining lawful activities difficult for both users and public safety alike,” said LaCava, who has been promoting making changes to the code for over a year.

“Protecting the community and enjoying our beachfront recreational activities are not mutually exclusive,” he said. “My recommendation had a broad coalition of support to include public safety — police, fire, lifeguards and park rangers — as well as town councils and environmentalists. Beach-goers will no longer fear stepping on hot coals buried under the sand or breathing excessive smoke.”

The La Jolla Town Council, La Jolla Community Planning Association, La Jolla Parks & Beaches, La Jolla Shores Association and Barber Tract Neighborhood Association all have advocated action by the city of San Diego to ban wood and charcoal beach fires in favor of those fueled by propane.

Larry Webb, president of the Mission Beach Town Council, also lobbied for the changes, saying the new policy is about clarity and enforcement.

“The amendments are not a ban on beach fires, but they will provide the public with clear rules as to what is allowed and give first responders the clarity needed to enforce regulations — clarity that currently doesn’t exist,” Webb said.

City officials said fines for illegal beach fires range from $250 to $1,000.

Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, whose District 2 includes Mission Beach and Ocean Beach, said the new policy is the right move.

“I believe this ordinance really makes clear what is allowed and what is not,” she said. “It’s very necessary for public safety and health.”

Cameron Naiman, who has owned Beach and Bay Bonfires for nearly 10 years, said the new policy is the result of lobbying by residents near city beaches.

“This has actually been a big push from all the wealthy beachfront property owners,” he said. “The beach is a public space for the entire population of San Diego city and county, not just these people’s personal front yard.”

Naiman said an education campaign would have made more sense. “We need education, not more laws.”

Some say the solution is providing more fire rings. The city eliminated many rings in 2008 and never replaced them.

City officials last summer rejected a compromise proposed by bonfire companies to tighten regulations but keep allowing the makeshift fires outside city rings.

The bonfire companies suggested that city officials could carefully track all wood-fueled fires outside of city rings, including which companies coordinate each fire, so that any irresponsible behavior could be traced to those companies for enforcement.

While some bonfires are lit by ordinary residents on their own, most are lit and coordinated by professional companies that provide tourists or residents the firewood, food and other equipment needed. ◆