Newport Beach staff will recommend the city OK take part in a pilot project with AQMD, which must first approve building of natural gas-burning sample bonfire pits. (Amy Senk, Daily Pilot / November 21, 2013)

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Newport Beach residents may soon be one step closer to roasting marshmallows beachside over natural gas-burning fire rings.

City staff plans to recommend at Tuesday's City Council meeting that council members approve city participation in a pilot project with the South Coast Air Quality Management District to install natural gas fire rings in certain beach areas, while also removing some of the existing wood-fueled fire rings.

Currently, 33 fire rings are arranged in the sand near the Balboa Pier and 27 are at Corona del Mar State Beach. These would be reduced to 15 and 12, respectively, under the staff-recommended plan, rather than be eliminated completely as the council had previously voted.

Having fewer wood-fueled rings will allow the city to spread out those that remain, positioning them at least 50 feet apart, per regulations AQMD passed in July.

The proposed plan includes two large, surfboard-shaped natural gas bonfire rings in each beach area, and three natural gas-fueled single rings in each area. The bonfires, like those seen at restaurants, might accommodate 20 to 25 people, which will help to ensure that the same number of people can still enjoy beachside flames as before.

"I think there's a wonderful risk that these are going to be really popular," City Manager Dave Kiff said of the natural gas option.

Before the gas rings would be implemented, the AQMD board must give final approval for two contractors both to both build sample propane and natural gas fire rings as part of a pilot program.

The AQMD board is set to vote on the proposals at its Dec. 6 meeting. It hoped to hear in advance of that decision whether the city wished to participate.

If AQMD decides to grant funding for the prototypes, staff recommends installing the new gas rings in two phases, with an initial test period at the Balboa Pier before expanding to Corona del Mar. Rather than be positioned among the wood burning rings in the sand, which would require pipelines to run under the beach, they would be placed at the edge of the beach, near hard landscaping such as a parking lot.

During the trial period, staff will want to ask: "Do we view it as safe and safe to operate? Do we view it as easy to maintain and that the pipes are holding up to heavy use?" Kiff said. "This is uncharted territory."

They have not recommended use of the propane models.

The proposed changes come amid ongoing concern for health hazards of wood-burning fire pits, evidence of which "continues to be strong, continues to be compelling," said Mayor Keith Curry, citing a World Health Organization classification of particulate matter in outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic for humans. The city's plan would cut the volume of wood smoke at least by 50%, according to a city press release.

It also ensures compliance with the AQMD fire ring regulations, including a 700-foot buffer zone between beach bonfires and homes, that go into effect March.

Additional enforcement of proper fire-ring use may be needed, at an estimated $100,000 to $200,000 per year, according to the report. An outside group could be brought in to help patrol the area, Kiff said.

The California Coastal Commission must also give their approval before the new rings can be installed.

After that? Bring on the marshmallows.

"They're the one thing you can burn out there that's not toxic," Curry said with a laugh.