A bonfire in Pacific Beach
A short-lived bonfire in Pacific Beach on May 8, 2021. / Photo by MacKenzie Elmer

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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.

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7 Comments

  1. I would love to have any person from the media to come by my home in South Mission Beach and go with me to the sand on the bayside to see what our families are having to deal with as a result of the beach fires.. BTW , on the bay side of our Court ,there are 12 children younger than 13 years old.
    Hot coals are not good for them.

  2. We use a temporary fire pit because its extremely competitive to get one of the few concrete ones. We didn’t think the current laws were confusing at all, our understanding was that portable fire pits were explicitly allowed in PB. If they want to address the issue of hot coals in the sand, which is understandable, they should add more coal dumping sites. And just bring back more concrete fire pits. Although the article doesn’t mention any case of anyone actually stepping on these coals, I’d be curious to hear if that’s been an escalating problem or not.

    I had no idea San Diego had cut down the number of fire pits so much, no wonder we can’t find any. This feels more like La Jolla residents chipping away further at the public’s ability to enjoy the beach.

  3. A couple of points here. Firstly, while it is true that the city reduced the number of fire enclosures in 1990, the budget was a fig leaf. They were strategically removed from places where there were a lot of resident complaints. And a trivia fact: These were originally fire rings, as this story calls them. They were round. But beachgoers would occasionally turn them on their side and roll them into the water, creating a hazard, to they were reconfigured as squares for the sole reason of avoiding this problem.

  4. Let’s allow the beach fires in the raised pits, we do not have to over regulate everything in San Diego.

  5. A big part of the enjoyment of going to the beach is/was the bonfires but people just can’t help themselves and b!tch and complain. 100% understand the need to stop having people bury hot coals in the sand so why not bring back more of the concrete rings and hot coal dumping stations? The city could simply ask for fair market value on the petco tailgate park sale and make and easy 25- 35 million dollars more. Problem solved!

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