My parents came to town last week, which means I got to do San Diego tourist things, which means I stayed in a Pacific Beach hotel over the weekend. From my sixth-floor vantage point, I spied the gentle flicker of beach bonfires burning deep into the night.
I couldn’t confirm whether these were built directly on the sand or in a raised fire pit, the latter of which are arguably legal under San Diego city code. This same time last year, lifeguards were dousing flames on beach fires no matter what contained them.
Lifeguards told me last May that, due to an unprecedented amount of beachgoers itching for outdoor recreation during COVID-19, there were too many incidents where irresponsible beach fire builders buried their flames under the sand, keeping embers and ash cooking underneath like a burning booby-trap for some unsuspecting person to step through.
The city’s municipal code says beach fires are allowed in city-provided fire containers. There are 150 of these permanent, concrete fire rings throughout the city, with 32 additional rings placed in touristy beaches like La Jolla Shores, Mission Beach and Ocean beach for the summer season only.
In 1990, the city had 450 fire rings. By 2008, as NBC7 reported, the city removed 186 concrete fire pits from its beaches and shorelines, as a way of closing a $43 million gap in its budget. The Park and Recreation Department at the time estimated that it cost $173,000 a year to maintain them.
Fires are otherwise prohibited, unless they are in a “portable barbecue device,” and beachgoers dispose of coals in city-provided hot coal containers.
That allowance for a barbecue opens some ambiguity in the code. After all, if one cooks a hot dog on a wood flame in a small, store-bought fire pit, does it become a barbecue? The city is now taking steps to end the argument.
San Diego City Council’s Environment Committee is considering a proposal Thursday by Councilman Joe LaCava, the committee chair, and Councilwoman Jen Campbell, both of whom represent coastal areas, to wipe “barbecue device” from the books. Basically, nobody will be able to build a wood fire unless it’s in a city-provided fire ring. Or beachgoers can cook on fires that are powered by propane.
“The language in the ordinance today is confusing,” LaCava said Monday. “One paragraph suggests you can (have a fire) and another suggests you can’t. It was problematic for lifeguards and even the police department to do enforcement.”
La Jolla and Windansea residents last year were up in arms over wood-burning fires, arguing the smoke is pollution and a health safety hazard. The Town Council, which has no authority over city decisions, voted to ask the city to ban wood and charcoal beach fires in favor of those fueled by propane.
LaCava, who represents the coastal area from La Jolla through Torrey Pines, in November, said during a question and answer session in La Jolla that he’d propose changes to the municipal code on beach fires.
Now the chair of the Environment Committee, it appears LaCava is proposing to give La Jollans what they want: beach fires allowed in concrete rings –only, or cooking on propane grills.
Quick science check-in: Though wood burning does produce large particulate air pollution, meaning dust big enough it can disturb lung function (inhaling smoke is bad; should be no surprise), propane is not pollution-free. Propane is a fossil fuel that dumps a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing the planet to warm up faster than normal.
“We thought at this point we have a thoughtful compromise,” LaCava said. “Where we go in the years ahead, should industry changes bring decarbonized barbecues or personal devices, we’ll see.”
Environment committee staff said the move eliminates illegal dumping or burying of hot coals and air quality issues around the burning of wood. But you can still burn wood and coal in the city fire pits.
The public can tune into the discussion at the committee hearing 1 p.m. Thursday.
In Other News
- Camille von Kaenel at inewsource has done some good watchdogging on Sempra, the parent company of San Diego Gas and Electric. Its shareholders approved millions of dollars in pay increases last week while energy rates continue to soar on San Diegans.
- The city of San Diego is suing multiple companies over decades-long water contamination from a toxic chemical found in firefighting foam called PFAS. (CBS 8)
- The EPA gave some money to University of California-San Diego to study different types of pollution plaguing the environment like plastics in care products. (KPBS)
- San Diego’s famous rambling sea lion was caught a third time waddling up a creek a mile from the ocean. (NBC)
- Candidates for San Diego City Council District 2 don’t seem to be jumping at the chance to support another ballot measure to overturn the building height limit in the Midway/Sports Arena area. I wrote about how building height limits present a climate concern when it comes to extreme heat.
- Some climate advocacy groups published their own assessment of how well San Diego leaders are voting on environmental issues. (KPBS)