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Are Newport Beach's fire pits a public good or a nuisance?

Should fire rings near residential areas be removed?
Should fire rings near residential areas be removed?
California Coastal Commission

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If you grew up in or around the beach cities of Orange County, it’s likely you spent a long, fun evening with family and friends huddled around a fire in a fire pit near the Balboa Pier, or across the mouth of the Newport Harbor in Corona Del Mar. One of the last vestiges of the pre-litigious days of post-World War II beach culture, the eight-inch high concrete pits have been a cheap, popular way to spend summer and fall evenings for more than half a century, but they could be in danger of removal.

The city counsel of Newport Beach has voted to get rid of the pits, and the California Coastal Commission is reviewing the city’s request for a permit to remove them in San Diego today.

Newport Beach city councilwoman Nancy Gardner said on AirTalk that health concerns are the primary motive at play, citing a recent South Coast Air Quality Management District rule that imposed a ban on wood-burning fireplaces in newly constructed homes.

"Their study showed that the particulate matter was harmful to people's health," said Gardner, a claim she says was verified by the director of pulmonary services at Hoag Hospital in Irvine, Calif.

While the counsel argues the fires can contribute to health problems of beach-goers and local residents alike, many of those with fond memories of the pits are opposed to their removal. Those opposed claim that beachfront residents are using health risks as a scapegoat to conceal their concerns about beach-crowding and rowdy behavior. Gardner refuted such suggestions of ulterior motive.

"We still have lots of visitors that never use the fire rings and they still come to our beaches," she said.

Jack Wu, a Newport Beach resident and columnist for the Orange County Register, is opposed to the rings' removal. He says that the Coastal Commission can only refer to anecdotal stories about reduced air quality in the areas surrounding the fire pits, and that no empirical data exists to prove residents' claims that the beach fixtures pose a health hazard.

"The city has not actually measured the air quality on or around the beaches," Wu said. Gardner believes that such measurements would be redundant.

"We don't need to do a study to see that the smoke is affecting the residents there," she said. "Until a few years ago, we didn't know that this was a health hazard -- not just a nuisance that you didn't want to sniff." 

Should the city be permitted to remove the pits to protect the interests of people who bought a home near these beaches, or are the good times the pits provide from residents all over the county a greater good?

Nancy Gardner, Newport Beach city councilwoman

Jack Wu, Newport Beach resident and columnist for the Orange County Register