Zach Cordner / The Osider
"It’s like a rite of passage for junior high and high school kids."
Beach fire rings are a beloved beach tradition for families and youth groups to roast marshmallows and tell stories.
Or are they an attractive nuisance drawing in transient drunks who fight and make late night pyres of wooden pallets, city property, and plastic?
Mothballed fire rings
Zach Cordner / The Osider
Because of Covid’s social distancing prohibitions, Oceanside mothballed its 18 cement fire rings normally dropped in the sand adjacent to the pier and at the harbor beach.
No one is predicting when they will return. Their summer-long absence gave locals a chance to contemplate if these concrete fire pits are an overall plus or minus.
“I think it’s part of our culture,” says Shawn Ambrose whose Real Surf shop was featured in the Animal Kingdom TV drama. “Locals and tourists alike want to have a bonfire. It’s like a rite of passage for junior high and high school kids as long as I can remember.”
Faumina wonders if the new pier-view hotels currently under construction may accept fire ring smoke.
But Oceanside lifeguard lieutenant Blake Faumina says his crew is all about public safety and the burning rings of fire aren’t always safe.
“We have always had signs that told people what they could and could not burn,” says Faumina. “Yet they still burn tires and painted and treated wood that create toxic fumes for everyone. And broken bottles are always an issue. Overall, we have had less debris on the beach with the fire rings gone. I would definitely say safety outweighs the luxury of having them on the beach.”
Nathan Mertz, manager of Oceanside’s public works division, says he is not aware of any move on the part of the city to remove the fire rings permanently post-Covid. But he did admit that the oceanfront fire rings have allowed some to “be doing things that they shouldn’t be,” including burning city property like signs and A-frames, and wooden pallets that leave dangerous nails in the sand.
Some cities avoid fire rings altogether. Peter Pascual, field operations captain for the Carlsbad police says the part of Carlsbad beach not controlled by the state of California has never had fire rings. Del Mar and Solana Beach have no fire rings.
Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina says he and his neighbors are happy that his beach town hasn’t had to deal with fire ring “zombies” for decades. “It’s been since the ‘80s or 90s when they took them out. They drew a lot of criminal activity. It was like the Night of the Living Dead on the beach.”
Possibly because it does not have the same access to area homeless as other beach areas, Coronado does not have the same fire rings problems as other cities according to a Coronado lifeguard who identified himself as Sean.
“It’s a nice convenience to have,” says Sean. “The biggest issue we have is when people bring down dried-out Christmas trees. Sometimes three at a time. They set off an intense tinderbox. It can get out of control. We don’t want wooden pallets or Christmas trees, just cords of wood.” He says as long as people obey the rules, he sees no reason why the fire rings won’t return to Coronado after the virus recedes.
Of all the local beach camping facilities operated by the California State Parks department, only Silver Strand State Beach offers fire rings. South Carlsbad State Beach and San Elijo State Beach allow open wood fires for its registered campers but do not have fire rings. Campers at Carlsbad, Cardiff and San Elijo State Beaches must now only use propane for their fires.
Unlike Oceanside, Encinitas did not remove its eight firepits at Moonlight Beach. But due to social distancing restrictions, they were surrounded with orange fencing and signs notifying that bonfires were not permitted at this time. One Encinitas lifeguard said that the demand for Moonlight Beach campfires is so great that if there were 40 instead of eight firepits, they would all be snatched up.
A recent spate of bonfires has riled neighbors at Pacific Beach, Crown Point and South Mission. Marcella Bothwell told Pacific Beach Monthly that new laws may be needed to fight the toxic smoke from legal campfires. “The smoke is not just a nuisance. This is a real health problem. At what point and what areas are going to be designated for those fires?”
Richard Burns of Pacific Beach thinks that the fire pits will not win out in the end because they don’t have a natural support group. “There’s nobody with money or power who will get organized to back them,” says Burns. “Businesspeople who own bars and restaurants don’t want them because people go to bonfires instead of their bars. We saved Bahai Point for public use because people got organized and rallied behind the cause. I just don’t see that happening with fire rings.”
In the case of Oceanside, Lifeguard lieutenant Faumina wonders if the new pier-view hotels currently under construction may accept fire ring smoke wafting up to their seaside suites. “We have had some complaints from some local residents over noxious fumes,” says Faumina. Jeremy Cohen, senior vice president for S.D. Malkin Properties which is building the hotels, did not respond to a request for comment.
And what might the California Coastal Commission have to say about the permanent removal of fire rings, since these public amenities could fall into their protected category of “low-cost visitor-serving.” A request for comment to local Coastal Commission program analyst Toni Ross was not returned.
“Our position is simple,” says Kristin Kuhn, programs director of San Diego Coastkeeper. “People should enjoy the beach any way they choose with the understanding they must keep the environment as sound as possible.” She says the burning of plastic is a “most severe” example of disrespecting the beach. “Burning is simply not an acceptable way of eliminating rubbish.”
Longtime local Carolyn Kramer points out that complaints from fire ring smoke has forced their removal from some Oceanside beaches in the past. “They’ve been taking them out little by little. The people in the San Miguel condos just north of the pier complained, and they ended up moving them to the south side of the pier. If they do bring the fire rings back, I think they should definitely bring them to the harbor beach [between the North and South Jetties] because that is a huge beach and they would be away from homeowners.”
As competition director for the Western Surfing Association, Kramer has long been involved in youth surfing contests. She says the bonfire experience is not as vital to the surfing community as it once was. “Usually, after a contest, people are tired and they just want to go home.”
Encinitas-based surf impresario Chris Cote admits the beach bonfire used to be a bigger deal. “The classic post-surf fire pit is a bit of a lost art unless you’re at a campground. Most of us have great memories around the firepit. That’s where the best conversations happen. I guess fire is now a four letter word.”