Burning Issue

Groups of friends huddle around a fire pit at Big Corona State Beach in Corona Del Mar. The pits have been a gathering point for family, friends, and visitors to the beach for years. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / July 11, 2013)

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Imagine it: After a long day at the beach, the sun begins to set. The air cools, darkness falls and soon it's time for hot dogs and s'mores.

But instead of lighting up firewood piled in a concrete ring — and sending up a thick column of smoke in the process — beach visitors gather around flames fueled by natural gas that lick at ceramic logs set over stainless steel grates.

That's just one rough idea for the future of Southern California's embattled beach bonfires that regional air quality regulators considered Friday as they discussed proposals for demonstration programs that could replace up to 30 wood-burning fire rings with ones fueled by either natural gas or propane.

South Coast Air Quality Management District officials sought the proposals as part of an effort to mitigate any harm to health caused by the wood-burning beach bonfires without infringing on what many have called a Southern California tradition steeped in nostalgia.

The prototypes would be the first such beach fire rings available for public use, officials said.

At its meeting Friday, members of the AQMD's Technology Committee agreed to move forward with proposals from two potential contractors: Corona-based Earth's Flame and Blazing Design of Essex Junction, Vt.

"We're basically going to have to invent a brand new product," said Mike Van Buren, owner of Blazing Design.

The company, he said, already makes a broad range of fireplaces and fire pits, including a portable gas burner that can be buried in the sand at the beach. But that device, he said, is not meant to be permanent.

Still, the former technical director for a hearth fire and barbecue trade association said he relishes the challenge.

"It'll be very interesting," Van Buren said. "It's very exciting."

AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood said prototypes could involve either retrofitting existing fire rings or building from the ground up.

A district staff report recommended allotting up to $300,000 for each of the two proposals, which were chosen from among the seven that the agency received. A consent calendar item giving staff members the green light to draw up those contracts is likely to go before the full board next month, Atwood said.

According to the report, each company would get a yearlong contract for the demonstrations of two prototypes: one natural gas and one propane. During that time, they'd receive up to $125,000 for a design and development phase, then up to $175,000 for a demonstration phase.

That, the report says, would allow beachgoers to take the new technology for a spin under the watchful eye of a monitor of sorts, who could help operate the prototypes as needed and identify any potential problems.

Exactly where the prototypes would be installed has yet to be determined.

Neighbors of wood-burning fire rings in Newport Beach have lobbied to get rid of them, citing respiratory problems stemming from the smoke, but Huntington Beach residents and officials have rallied to keep the hundreds of bonfires on their beaches burning.

In July, following months of heated debate, the district approved new fire-ring regulations — set to go into effect early next year — establishing "no-burn days," when air quality is poorer than usual, and a 700-foot buffer zone between bonfires and homes. The rule is a softened version of a proposal that would have banned beach bonfires outright within the AQMD's jurisdiction, which includes all of Orange and Los Angeles counties.

As part of that compromise, the district board also requested ideas for fire rings fueled by gas or propane that could safely take the place of wood-burning rings.

Newport Beach officials have expressed interest in the possibility of an alternative-fuel fire ring demonstration program. However, that would first require a round of vetting at the city level — probably at a series of public meetings. City Manager Dave Kiff said the community will have a chance to weigh in on a "slate of ideas" at a Nov. 26 council meeting.

Newport Mayor Keith Curry said in an email that he looks forward to continuing to explore a variety of possibilities for the city's beach bonfires.

"I believe the AQMD has identified vendors and technologies that can provide a safe alternative fire ring experience," he wrote.