By Billy Fried
Our City Council met on May 16 to discuss, among other things, whether to replace the six firepits at Aliso Beach that mysteriously disappeared over the course of the transition from County to City jurisdiction.
The staff recommended replacing wood-burning firepits with portable propane firepits that could be rented. Even though there are 838 free firepits in Orange County, they stated it was because Aliso Beach was the only beach in the County’s “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone” (VHFHSZ).
But that’s simply not true. Emerald Bay and Corona del Mar are both in the VHFHSZ, and they both enjoy wood-burning firepits. Their homes are much closer to the fires, actually fronting the pits. In contrast, only one home at Aliso Beach sits directly over the beach – at the south end. The rest are set back on the hill across Coast Highway. Additionally – and this is an important distinction – Aliso Beach doesn’t actually sit in the VHFHSZ. It borders it. A careful reading of the map reveals that the zones are east of Coast Highway. Why? Because the beaches to the west emit moisture from that giant extinguisher known as the ocean.
Still, I appreciate Fire Chief Niko King’s concern that a rogue ember in a major wind event could send it traveling up to two miles, as he claims to have witnessed. But did it come from a beach? Or inland in Sacramento, where he spent his entire career before joining our community last year? Of course, it’s his job to worry and suppress anything that may appear as a risk. Just as City Council’s number one job is to protect us from fire. But can we use discernment here?
In a “watered down” compromise meant to appease everyone, council first recommended bringing back just two wood-burning firepits and making two additional propane pits available by special event permit. Then they changed course and asked Marine Safety (in concert with the Fire Department) to return with a recommended number, split between wood and propane. Unfortunately, if I know anything about how public safety officials think, they certainly won’t be returning with a recommendation for more. What council should have requested was an analysis of why a wood-burning beach firepit has never caused a wildfire.
I’m no scientist, but I can guess it has something to do with the prevailing offshore breeze that is moist and wet and is a natural spark arrester. As we all know too well, it’s the dry, onshore Santa Ana winds that create the hazard. And they blow towards the ocean, meaning that fires at beaches would blow into the sea. Perhaps that’s why fire officials have seen no threat from beach-based firepits for the last hundred years.
If we’re really that concerned, why not simply close the pits when there are high-fire risk forecasts instead of a prohibition on four of them? To reduce the wood-burning firepits from six to two is just silly and undemocratic – and will unleash hardship and unintended consequences. I know this because, unlike City Council, Marine Safety, the Fire Department and City Staff, I’ve been one of those long-suffering beach bonfire savants who come down to the beach at dawn and squat on a firepit for an entire day to engage the joy of community gatherings at night, warmed and entranced by the fire – playing music, drumming, or just for celebration, ceremony and friendship.
It’s always been a perfect system – crowd-sourced – first come, first served, with people bringing their own wood and behaving well. I just can’t imagine the fights that will occur when cars idle off Coast Highway and charge into the parking lot at dawn when the chain drops and people scramble to grab one of two pits that they have planned on for weeks. “I got here first.” “No, I did!” “But I have all this wood!” “F your wood!”
Now let’s talk about these flaccid devices called propane firepits. Aren’t we trying to reduce the impact of fossil fuels and phasing out gas utilities wherever possible? Do we want propane leeching into our sand? And how will it work? Will we abdicate control to private, profit-driven concerns like The Beachcomber at Crystal Cove or our own Lost Pier Café? They already have propane firepit rentals. The Beachcomber rents them in 3-hour increments and includes food and beverages. Prices start at $160 and go up to $235 for their “Luau” Package. Lost Pier is more reasonable with their ala carte 3-hour rental for $85, but they are currently only available up until 7 p.m., before it even gets dark.
Do we really want to compete with private enterprises or partner and charge for something that has always been free? Do we need more bureaucracy, rules, and oversight for something that has worked so well for generations? Please write City Council and implore them to replace the six firepits that were there before. Summer is coming, and we’d all like the chance to gather again and enjoy one of the things that makes living here so special.
Billy is the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an outdoor adventure company, and the host of “Laguna Talks” on KXFM radio – Thursdays at 8 p.m. Email: [email protected].