Debra J. Saunders
Being a Californian confers certain benefits. Foremost among them is the knowledge that even if you don't surf, even if you don't spend a lot of time at the beach, even if you never have been to a beach bonfire party, if you ever should feel the urge to shout "Surf's up!" or toast marshmallows or do the Watusi at a fireside beach party, you can do so at one of the Golden State's public beaches.

It doesn't matter where you live or whom you know or how much money you have. The right to public beach access is "constitutionally guaranteed," California Coastal Commission Legislative Director Sarah Christie insists. It's her commission's mission to protect public access.

But all is not peachy in Southern California. In 2012, the Newport Beach City Council voted unanimously to get rid of 60 fire pits at Corona del Mar State Beach and near the Balboa Pier, citing public health concerns. That sparked the bonfire wars.

Residents bristled; local establishments protested. The California Coastal Commission intervened to keep the bonfires burning for nighttime beachgoers.

Then the South Coast Air Quality Management District backed up the anti-bonfire forces by passing a regulation that would have resulted in the removal of beach fire pits within 700 feet of homes.

Quoted in the Orange County Register, Corona del Mar homeowners Frank and Barbara Peters, who live 520 feet from fire pits, praised the air district for creating awareness about the dangers of particulate matter.

"When I first saw the issue, I laughed," Huntington Beach's surfing Republican assemblyman, Travis Allen, told me. "This is a California tradition."

Alas, there is another California tradition; it involves rich people trying to keep the riffraff out of their enclaves. Allen is convinced that Newport Beach and the air district acted to protect the interests of tony beachfront property owners by dousing the bonfires. "This is not an air quality issue," quoth Allen. "It's an access issue masquerading as an air quality issue."

And: "Just because you own a multimillion-dollar home, it doesn't mean you get to claim a public beach as your private property."

"We had never really looked at the impact of air pollution from beach bonfires," air district spokesman Sam Atwood told me when I asked him about the controversy's history. But when the district did examine pollution downwind from beach bonfires, it found harmful particulates. According to the air district, one minute of a beach bonfire emits the equivalent of the secondhand smoke from 800 cigarettes.

Debra J. Saunders

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