Up in Smoke

Wood-burning fireplaces are gone. Might our beloved beach campfires be far behind?

At a birthday campfire on the beach last July, I gazed into the orange flames and beyond, into a whorled orange sunset that melted sky into sea. I was starting to dissolve into the warm flow, to become one with all that oranginess, when the wind suddenly shifted, and I inhaled a cloud of smoke. The South Coast Air Quality Management District calls it PM 2.5s, or wood-smoke particulates, and it has drawn a lot of attention because of health concerns. My perfect moment was clouded with a somber thought: Is the campfire endangered?  

Recent air regulations sharply curtail burning: New wood-burning fireplaces and stoves were outlawed in 2008;
you can't build one unless it runs on natural gas or has some other non-wood-burning flame. And in November, mandatory no-burn days go into effect.

Crystal Cove’s new campground is scheduled to open this summer. According to Ken Kramer, district superintendent for California State Parks, Orange Coast District, it’s the first to open on the state coast in more than two decades. And a proud moment for the county.

But the new campsites will lack one feature most campers consider standard, indeed the very heart of the experience: the fire pit. Traditional wood campfires won’t be allowed because, in addition to air quality and environmental concerns, smoke drifts toward nearby homes. The state deliberately built the campsites without fire pits, although campers will be allowed to bring self-contained gas-fired gizmos. 

The campfire is one of Orange County’s most primal and enduring rituals. So far, they have been exempt from regulation, although the regulations do apply to “outdoor portable wood-burning devices.” But these rules come down from the AQMD, which in turn must meet federal guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency. I was stunned when my husband, Miguel Pulido, who serves on the AQMD board, told me. Banning fire? Really? 

While part of me sides with those smoke-choked homeowners, I’m also worried that the issue has become the environmental equivalent of second-hand cigarette smoke.

 

Jill Whynot, the AQMD’s director of strategic initiatives, says the rules are about protecting our lungs in the South Coast Air Basin, one of the filthiest places in the country; 43 percent of Americans who breathe dangerous levels of air pollution reside in the basin, which includes Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. (Orange County, with more fortunate geography, doesn’t have as much smog as some inland areas.)

Yes, that’s unfortunate. But does my campfire really pump out more particulates than a diesel truck, more pollution than a Chinese ship belching sulfur in the port? My little mesquite log from the convenience store is excreting more toxins than a power plant? I don’t buy it.

As it turns out, stationary sources such as fireplaces aren’t nearly as dirty as cars, trucks, and ships. More than 80 percent of local smog comes from moving sources. 

But wood burning also is worse than I realized. Whynot says fireplaces emit more than four times the fine particulates—PM 2.5s, the tiny ones that lodge in the lungs—than all the power plants in all four counties combined. We have the nation’s worst levels of PM 2.5s. Home fireplaces dump 4 tons of these particulates into the atmosphere every day, compared with 7 tons from trucks and 4 tons from ships. Who knew?

“Think of the millions and millions of fireplaces,” she says. “If everybody does small things, it can add up to a lot.”

She says officials tried to take a practical approach, allowing wood fires if they are “the sole source of heat,” for example, and exempting cook stoves and fires above 3,000 feet. Officials decided to leave campfires alone, she says, because there aren’t nearly as many of them. 

Phew. So campfires are safe. Unless.

 

Unless we can’t afford them anymore. I asked Kenneth Kramer at the state parks about the future of the campfire, given the situation at Crystal Cove.

“Gathering around the campfire has been and will continue to be part of the state park camping experience,” he says. But campfires could be in trouble in the short run, because state parks are facing an $11 million budget reduction this fiscal year and $22 million next.

“The only way to realize that is to cut staffing,” Kramer says. “Do you close a restroom? Do you not clean the fire pit? ... It’s very expensive to operate fire rings. They have to be kept clean to be safe.” 

At the new Crystal Cove campground, Kramer notes, campers can use portable gas campfires, which strikes me as about as appealing as roasting a plastic marshmallow. I’ve seen some tricked-out gas grills. A few mind-blowing gas fireplaces. But even if your gas flame is leaping from a bed of volcanic beads attended by a 5-foot pure-brass Buddha, it’s no match for the crackle and random light dance of a wood fire. I know others feel the same way because even though state park land in Orange County offers nearly 700 fire pits, and city beaches have another 100-plus, there never are enough in the summer. I’ve seen people stake out fire rings as early as dawn. In Capo, where there are only five pits, people practically have to sleep overnight on the beach to snag one.

But it’s always worth the craziness. 

Walking the beach one recent night, I notice how the fire pits are lined up along the Newport shore like giant votive candles. There’s a devotional feeling about the scene, and as I shamble down the sandy aisle between the dark sea and a row of glowing fires, I say a little prayer for all the campfires out there, that they may continue to burn brightly.

I can’t imagine summer without them.

Photograph by Michael Saechang

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue.