Enjoy beach fire safely and leave the pallets at home

Nothing makes a day at the beach like gathering around a roaring fire as the night air cools or grilling burgers and dogs to take the edge off an appetite fueled by hours in the surf. But fires require careful handling and proper disposal to prevent yesterday’s fun from becoming today’s injury.

“During the summer months we see a sharp rise in [burn] injuries that we think are preventable,” said Jason McSweeney, a nurse practitioner from the Regional Burn Center at UCSD Medical Center.

Each year, the center handles about 2,100 outpatient burn injuries; another 400 require inpatient treatment.

Children should not be permitted to play on or near fire pits, even if there doesn’t appear to be active remains of a fire. Hot coals, especially those buried in sand, can remain intensely hot for up to 24 hours, and because a child’s skin is thinner, burns develop faster and deeper than for adults. McSweeney recommends applying cold water (not ice) to the burn. This also washes away any sand or debris. If time allows, apply an antibiotic ointment and seek medical attention.

Those who plan to light up should familiarize themselves with city regulations: only clean, untreated wood can be burned; fires must be contained in a fire pit; the fuel cannot be stacked up more than 12 inches above the top of the fire ring; there are no fires allowed on beaches between midnight and 5 a.m. Fines for infractions range from $50 to $200.

Although regulations allow beach visitors to bring their own self-contained fire pits, lifeguard officials said it is safer to use the cement fire squares provided by the city. These, along with hot coal receptacles, are located on beaches at La Jolla Shores and La Jolla Cove.

The most common infraction officials see are visitors hauling in palettes to burn.

“People keep forgetting, and they don’t remember that they can’t burn pallets,” said San Diego Lifeguard Service Lt. John Greenhalgh. “We try to catch them in the parking lot, and they get upset because it used to be allowed.”

Pallets are specifically prohibited because of the nails in them, their tendency to splinter and pollutants contained in paint and/or varnish.

“For years it was very popular to pick up a bundle of them and make a big bonfire,” said lifeguard Sgt. Rick Stroebel.

Bonfires are also prohibited because of the possibility of stray embers or coals being left behind on the sand.

Beach fires are carefully monitored, not just because of the risk of physical injury, but because they sometimes attract other elements of trouble. Underage drinking, urinating in public and bringing glass containers onto the beach are examples of ticketable violations.

Visitors should also be aware that anyone within a 10-foot radius of a fire square can be held responsible.

The best way to reduce hazards from beach fires is proper disposal of the coals. That begins with putting out the fire. Begin the process 45 minutes to an hour before leaving, said Stroebel. Cover the fire with sand to douse the fire, then pour water over it to cool the coals.

“The combination of throwing both sand and water will ensure the fire is properly extinguished,” Stroebel said.

The remains of clean, untreated wood do not have to be removed from fire pits. Coals in other containers should be deposited in receptacles specifically marked for hot coal disposal. Dumping coals in a regular trash can could result in a fire.

Beach visitors who bring portable grills or hibachis need to be aware that the sand underneath gets hot and may become a risk for barefoot bathers. Water should be poured over the sand to cool it down when the grill is removed.

About once a week, beach fire pits are cleaned. A front-end loader lifts up the fire square in order to scoop up the sand and debris, which is loaded into a dump truck. A sand sweeper than comes through to remove any remaining material. While this mechanized maintenance gets most of the by-products from fires, they don’t target the entire beach or areas where people may have buried coals.

Stroebel said people planning to build fires at the beach need to think ahead so they don’t get into a hotbed of trouble.

“You need to plan your day at the beach,” he said. “Figure out how you’re going to dispose of your coals before they get really hot. Know what you’re going to burn, where you’ll be burning it and where you’ll be disposing it.”

For more information about San Diego Lifeguard Services and beach safety, visit