Embers and Ash

Can this really be California without beach fire pits?


When our kids were young, we’d go down to the beach on weekends and build a bonfire as the sun set. Huntington Beach, Aliso Beach, Big Corona—any beach with a fire pit would beckon, even if the wood and blankets and sandy bottles of ketchup always turned the excursion into a schlep.

To us, it was worth it. The sky would go black, the night would go cold, and the flames would rise orange as the surf pounded the sand. Around us, other fires would draw their own tribes—flirting teenagers, singing church groups, beer-swigging surfers, families celebrating quinceañeras. We’d look up at the nearby houses and wonder how the people inside could resist joining. When our kids outgrew those beach nights, it was a little sad. 

It has remained a little sad as Orange County has, bit by bit, stamped out its fire rings. Only 29 of California’s 450 beaches still permit them, and most of those remaining are in San Diego County or here. But Huntington Beach removed half of the rings on its city beaches in 2010 after a toddler suffered accidental burns there. And Newport Beach voted last year to get rid of the rings at Balboa Pier and Big Corona State Beach, citing the liability and wood smoke pollution. A California Coastal Commission ruling on the Newport Beach ban is expected this month.

The anti-ring arguments certainly have merit. Second-hand smoke is no fun. No taxpayer relishes anteing up for a liability payout. No one wants children—or anyone of any age—to be burned. 

But lurking in the background is a less-spoken impulse among beach dwellers to keep outsiders away from what too many regard as their personal back yard. Never mind that state law mandates that recreational opportunities and public access be maximized at the beaches. Just read some of the letters to Newport Beach officials, complaining about the “gangs, crime [and] drugs” allegedly brought in by the riff-raff, or the supposed traffic at Big Corona from fire jumpers celebrating the Iranian New Year.  

You get the sense that this isn’t just about lawsuits and asthma. Underneath, there’s an inescapable fact of beach life: People spend millions to live at the beach, thinking the community will be charming, and then are shocked—shocked!—to learn that they’re effectively living next to a public park. 

The other day, a friend in Pacific Palisades told me a story. There used to be a big Fourth of July fireworks show at the Santa Monica Pier. Crowds came from miles around—teenagers, church groups, surfers, families. For many years, the gathering was festive. Then real estate prices in Santa Monica began to skyrocket, and the new locals began to grouse about the festival’s impact on property values and the municipal budget. Eventually, something bad happened—a gang shooting—and the locals got what they wanted. “The City of Santa Monica hasn’t had Fourth of July fireworks for more than 20 years,” my friend said. “And the community is the worse for it.” 

It won’t be a surprise if Newport Beach does away with its fire pits. People who spend millions on beach homes tend to get what they want. But they should be careful what they wish for. Things can get lonely when the rest of the tribe leaves, and the night can grow cold after the fire goes out.  


Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue.

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