SAN DIEGO (AP) — Beachgoers will be able to linger a little longer around the seaside fires that are synonymous with Southern California in Newport Beach.
The California Coastal Commission postponed a vote Wednesday on whether to order the removal of Newport Beach's public fire rings. The commission first wants air quality authorities to offer a recommendation about the pollution the fires create.
Although the fire rings are beloved by visitors who sometimes arrive at sunrise to secure a fireside spot at sunset, some beachfront residents complain that smoke from the wood fires is a nuisance and, worse, a health hazard.
The commission voted unanimously Wednesday to postpone a vote on Newport Beach's request for a permit to remove all its fire rings — 33 near the Balboa Pier and 27 on a stretch of Corona del Mar State Beach.
Those who want to get rid of the fire rings say smoke sometimes gets so thick it sets off alarms in nearby homes, and leaves a layer of soot and ash inside homes. Others say they are forced to sleep with their windows closed during the summer.
Opponents of the plan to remove the rings say bonfires on the sand are a Southern California tradition and an affordable option for summertime church gatherings, scout troops, youth groups and families.
The rings have been on the beaches since the late 1940s and early 1950s, and an online petition to keep the fire rings has drawn nearly 6,000 responses.
A report by the commission's staff recommends the fire rings stay because it would rob the public of access. It cites a state Coastal Act provision to encourage and protect "lower cost" recreational facilities.
To support their bid to remove the rings, city officials have submitted general scientific studies on the harmful health effects of wood smoke and the particulates it contains, but have not done local studies to measure air quality on or around the beaches where bonfires are allowed.
Local resident John Hamilton told the Coastal Commission Wednesday that he has been recently diagnosed with emphysema.
"My doctor has recommended I move or get rid of the fire rings. Needless to say, I would hope to take the latter," Hamilton said.
Commissioner Esther Sanchez criticized the idea of removing the fire rings, saying "barbecues from the residents probably contribute more to air quality than these fire rings."
Sanchez criticized Newport Beach city officials for not presenting a comprehensive plan that would do something other than removing the fire rings to install volleyball courts — which are popular among locals but wouldn't draw visitors from inland Orange County the same way the fire rings do.
"The way it's been presented is that this is really a way of controlling the public," said Sanchez, adding that the fire rings are probably the most in-demand free recreational activity at Orange County beaches.