Beachside bonfires have been a Southern California tradition since at least the 1950s. Families cooking hot dogs. Surfers warming themselves against the early-evening chill. Lovers holding hands and gazing into the flames, with the roar of the surf in the background. Out-of-state visitors wanting to follow in the footsteps of their favorite actors from Baywatch and The O.C. Over the years, beach cities up and down the coast installed permanent fire rings for ease and safety. These fire rings have become part of our national pop culture. Think Gidget and Moondoggie. Think Annette and Frankie. And now think if those fire rings were banned--because that's almost what happened, until a fateful decision this month.
According to KABC-TV, the move to ban Southern California's beach fire pits started in the uber-wealthy Corona Del Mar section of Orange County's Newport Beach, whose residents complained that woodsmoke from bonfires was harming their health. The California Coastal Commission denied Newport's subsequent plan to remove the rings, and the matter ended up with the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD). The plan under consideration by then had grown out of all proportion: to ban fire pits on every California beach from Malibu in the north to San Clemente in the south--100 miles of popular oceanfront.
One of the beach towns most impacted by the proposed ban would have been Huntington Beach, the surfing capital that bills itself officially as Surf City USA. With three beaches (Bolsa Chica State Beach, Huntington City Beach, and Huntington State Beach) stretching for 10 miles, Huntington has 530 fire rings. “These bonfires are a deeply rooted tradition in Huntington Beach,” said Mayor Connie Boardman in a statement to the press. “It was important for us to save the fire pits in Southern California not only because of the clear demand of the community but also because these bonfires are a vital part of the California experience.”
Protests against the proposed ban were heard up and down the coast by people whose families, like my own, have been enjoying these fire pits for generations. My father, while attending (pre-Malibu) Pepperdine College, spent nights at the bonfires after surfing all day with The Beachcombers fraternal organization. (It was 1950, and they often wore Hawaiian shirts and leis for their group photos.) I spent many an evening in the Sixties and Seventies at Huntington doing the same (shout-out to Lifeguard Station #3!). Families to this day are sitting around fire rings, cooking S'mores, strumming guitars, eating from picnic baskets, watching the sun set. And until 10 days ago, no one knew whether the sun would set on the bonfire tradition.
On July 12, the AQMD decided that the fire rings could remain--but with restrictions. The rings could be no closer to homes than 700 feet, and would have to be at least 100 feet apart on most beaches. Thanks to Huntington's broad and long beaches, all 530 of its fire rings will remain. “We were immediately overwhelmed with support,” said Mayor Boardman in her statement, “and are delighted to announce that the Huntington Beach fire pits are here to stay.”
Beach bonfires may seem like a small thing, but only if you think of culture and tradition as being small. For more than 60 years, these fire rings have warmed hodads and gremmies, locals and tourists, and some of the world's greatest surfers, and it's reassuring to know that one of SoCal beach culture's historic attractions will continue to be enjoyed by future generations.