Newport City Council Reinstates Firewood Bonfires

Beachgoers can once again throw wood into the fire rings at Balboa and Big Corona del Mar beaches.

Last Tuesday, the Newport Beach city council voted 5-2 to reinstate the use of wood in the fire rings. Thirty pits across both Balboa and Big Corona del Mar beaches will once again be allowed to burn wood, in addition to charcoal.

The council reversed the charcoal-only rule on Tuesday night, fulfilling a campaign promise to citizens. Currently 30 fire rings are in compliance with the new regulations, which state that wood burning fire rings must be at least 100 feet apart. The city also passed legislation which would lead to spreading out the remaining fire rings so that all 60 will be in compliance.

Due to changes in air quality regulations –– dictated by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) –– and concerns from citizens, the city council previously banned the use of wood in the pits and converted them to charcoal-only. The charcoal-only mandate was never approved by the California Coastal Commission, according to city Councilman Scott Peotter.

Newport Beach hailed the move as a way to keep the community’s air clean. The use of charcoal produces a “much dimmer flame but a more even heat,” according to the city’s webpage dedicated to fire rings. The statements made by the city and the SCAQMD about charcoal are technically accurate — charcoal  releases less smoke when burned –– but the production of charcoal requires burning large amounts of wood under very specific conditions.

According to a study by Kammen and Lew in the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory Report, charcoal production “is responsible for the large scale felling of wood which may lead to deforestation.”

“They really are of no use during the evening,” said councilman Peotter, the author of the bill reinstating the use of wood. According to Peotter, the charcoal-only rings are only used on summer days for barbecues. “So in fact, you have shut down the beaches at dusk.”

Because wood produces more smoke than charcoal, residents in favor of keeping the pits charcoal-only cited health concerns related to smoke inhalation.

Wood supporters drew attention to “not in my backyard” sentiments of their charcoal supporting neighbors. Leaders of a pro-wood group called the Save the Fire Rings suggest the wood ban is not really about health, but is driven out of a desire to keep undesirables away from Newport Beach.

According to the city’s webpage beachgoers can pick up a bag of charcoal for $13-15 but multiple bags of charcoal are required for a bonfire. Compared to approximately $10 for firewood this causes the cost of the bonfire to increase exponentially and for beachgoers to go elsewhere for bonfires.

“Right now [the California Coastal Commission] agree[s] that it takes a low cost recreational activity and basically makes it nonexistent.” Councilman Peotter said. “The beaches are California’s beaches –– I think our city is very hospitable and I like having people come and enjoy the beaches after dark, and that means wood in the fire.”

The city is expected to have the wood burning pits officially designated and marked by Jan. 23.

After a short absence, the traditional wood-burning fire pits return to Newport Beach — continuing the culture and tradition of beach bonfires which have been an iconic part of the Southern California landscape for approximately 70 years.