The Burning Question

July 2011

I blame the Boy Scouts, but more than four decades after I turned in my khakis, the sight, sound, and smell of a campfire remain, for me, an all-natural mood stabilizer.

As a kid, I spent countless chilly nights beside one, nearly catatonic, staring into a pile of glowing embers, calmed by the radiant heat and the knowledge that I’d be just fine no matter what was lurking out there in the darkness. To this day, all I need is a wad of paper and a kindling tepee to start one, and my ability to conjure the magic with a single match remains a point of inexplicable pride. Even though years have passed since I last slept under the stars, my memories are so hard-wired that the slightest whiff of wood smoke triggers a moment of intense pleasure.

You might get a different opinion from the folks who live in Orange County’s vulnerable canyons, for whom the smell has an entirely different connotation. But campfires are my Zoloft.

So I read Laura Saari’s Rituals column this month (Page 64) with mixed emotions. She wonders if the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s new rules about fireplaces, wood stoves, and open burning—as well as budget problems—are leading us, logically, to an Orange County where traditional campfires eventually may disappear. I sometimes drive along PCH in Huntington Beach with my windows down, just to sniff the beach fires. But what I consider a joy is a problem to the AQMD—something called PM 2.5s, wood-smoke particulates that can cause health problems.

I won’t deny that sucking campfire smoke into my lungs is unhealthy. Logic tells me it is. And you won’t find anyone who’ll defend aggressive environmental regulation more strongly than I. My first descent into the yellowish smog around John Wayne Airport in 1985 was horrifying, and I literally can see the difference that three decades of strong emission rules have made. Arthur M. Winer, a professor at UCLA’s School of Public Health, calls our turnaround “one of the most remarkable environmental success stories anywhere in the world.”

We can be proud of that. But, like Laura, I wonder if, in our quest for cleaner air, we’re in danger of losing something that makes Orange County so appealing, and if maybe there’s one little loophole we might consider building into this burning debate.

Martin J. Smith

Illustration by John Ueland

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