HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Anna Abderhalden and her siblings woke before dawn to stake a claim to a coveted beachfront spot where bonfires blaze each night as a rite of summer in this surf-crazy Southern California city.
More than 12 hours later, Abderhalden's toes were tucked in the sand as an orange sun dipped below the horizon and flames warmed her family.
"This is a unique place," she said as her sister-in-law skewered a marshmallow. "You're by nature, you've got the ocean right there and we've got our feet in the sand."
The glow of a tradition dating back decades could soon be dimmed if air quality regulators vote to ban wood burning across miles of beaches in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The proposition has sparked a bitter dispute between those who see the bonfires as a treasured slice of California coastal culture and those who say they are a smoky health hazard for millions. More immediately, the debate has fueled an increasingly personal spat between residents of two neighboring beach cities known worldwide for their luxurious stretches of sand, surfing and sun-kissed weather.
The affluent coastal city of Newport Beach first considered extinguishing its 60 fire pits last year, after beachfront residents complained about exposure to wood smoke from bonfires just yards from their homes.
The city applied to the California Coastal Commission to snuff the pits, but the commission — which is charged with protecting public access to the coast — slammed the idea in a staff report and postponed its vote.
The controversy, however, prompted regional air quality regulators to take a closer look and propose a sweeping ban that has inflamed passions in nearby Huntington Beach, aka Surf City USA.
The town, known for its laid back surf culture and 10 miles of beaches, stands to lose almost $1 million a year in parking revenue alone from a fire pit ban, not counting losses to local businesses and hotels.
The state parks system also has more than a half-million dollars at stake and worries that the proposal's broad wording could eventually lead to a similar ban at campsites with beach access.
Huntington Beach and its supporters launched a campaign — "Keep Your Mitts Off Our Pits" — and spearheaded an online petition with nearly 8,500 signatures so far. State and local politicians have also waded into an escalating war of words that is increasingly being cast as a showdown between NIMBY-happy residents of Newport Beach and the scrappier middle-class surf haven to its north.
"It's God, mom, hot apple pie and fire rings," said Steve Bone, president of the Huntington Beach Marketing and Visitors Bureau. "We do respect our neighbor and if they would like to get rid of them that's fine. But we don't think we should be put in the same category."
Newport Beach did not intend to jeopardize the region's fire rings and, in a recent letter to Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman, proposed allowing individual cities to decide the matter themselves.
City Manager David Kiff did not respond to further request for comment beyond providing the letter to the AP.
In a sign of the mounting tension, the chairman of the regional air quality board was pilloried by fire pit supporters after he angrily compared the smoke from Newport Beach's bonfires to "carpet bombing" during the Vietnam War during a public hearing. The South Coast Air Quality Management District board votes on the ban next month.
Newport Beach residents say smoke drifting up the bougainvillea-covered bluffs is thick enough to trigger fire alarms and coat patio furniture and cars in soot.
One homeowner in the gated Breakers Drive community just yards from Corona del Mar State Beach, which has 27 fire rings, said he had to extinguish burning embers that drifted onto his deck.
In Huntington Beach, by contrast, there are no homes anywhere near the beach, which is mostly state park land.
"People say, 'You knew they were there when you moved here, so too bad for you,'" said Barbara Peters, who said the fires could be to blame for respiratory problems and other illnesses experienced by residents. "We did know they were here. We just didn't know, as did a lot of people, how bad it was. Now people are learning."
The fate of the fire rings is part of a larger effort to reduce regional air pollution by cracking down on open burning. Of greatest concern are microscopic soot particles that can lodge in the lungs and, in some cases, pass through cell linings to the bloodstream and reach other organs, said Sam Atwood, an air district spokesman.
The agency has found elevated levels of these tiny pollutants downwind from the fire pits and is conducting testing in the two beach towns to quantify it. The agency estimates the region's 840 pits generate up to a quarter-ton of particle pollution each summer day.
Pollution risk wasn't even a consideration for Abderhalden and her kin as they relaxed around their fire on a recent Saturday night. The family had arrived at 7:30 a.m. to score a first-come, first-served fire pit at Bolsa Chica State Beach. A steady wind blew off the ocean and the strong smell of wood smoke drifted across the parking lot and onto a roadway.
"It's a pleasure to see the fire burn and it makes you relax. I think it's ridiculous to take them away from the people. They've been here forever," said her brother-in-law Jim Bleemers, who was warming himself after surf fishing until dusk. "It draws people together."
Yet the issue has become so contentious in Southern California recently that even those who don't live near the sand and don't use the fire pits have an opinion — and not all of them are drawn to the flames.
Arnold Van Sprew, who visits Newport Beach twice a month from the landlocked city of Cypress, was soaking in the sun and watching dozens of boats launch for the annual Newport to Ensenada Yacht Race.
"If I had a $6 million home right here, I wouldn't want the smoke coming in all day long either," he said, gesturing to the impeccably manicured bluff-top houses. "Why have no smoking on the beach and allow fire pits? It just doesn't make sense."
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