By Tom Pendergast
A dozen years ago bonfires on Ocean Beach were almost banned, but after a long struggle, which included the possibility of by-permit-only burning, the National Park Service (NPS) will be putting out additional fire pits in March.
The NPS will be laying out 16 bonfire pits on the beach between the 15th and 20th stairwells, four more than last year. This comes after a four-month winter ban on bonfires, which is part of a relatively new plan for bonfires on Ocean Beach that began last year.
The new plan allows bonfires from March 1 through Oct. 31, up to 9:30 p.m., and then bans them entirely until early March.
“The idea is to develop and cultivate a sustainable program for recreational fires to continue, while helping us manage the resources of keeping them going. So, this no-burn season that we’re in has been a real lynch pin of the whole plan,” said NPS spokesman Nathan Sargent. “A lot of this, at its foundation, is environmental. That’s the motivation and the winter, those four months, correspond with the ‘spare the air’ season of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. It’s also when there’s less demand for recreation on the beach.”
Sargent said the park service has taken the opportunity to do a thorough cleaning of the beach’s sand before the bonfire pits are put back. Another advantage of the four-month rest, he said, is that it allows the park service to allocate its resources so it can deal with graffiti and other issues.
The NPS has considered a ban on bonfires at Ocean Beach twice in the past, starting in 2005. At that time, Burners Without Borders, an organization born at the juncture between the Burning Man art festival and Hurricane Katrina, got involved. They organized four teams of artists to create fire rings for the beach to keep the right to burn on the beach alive.
While this social experiment in community service had mixed results – with two of the fire rings getting pulled off the beach within the first year but others lasting through 2013 – it succeeded in avoiding a total ban.
In 2015 the NPS again started talking about banning fires on the beach or perhaps starting a permit system for everyone, and charging $35 to reserve a fire pit. This caused a public outcry and backlash, with the NPS getting more than 500 public comments about the permit plan.
Eventually, the NPS dropped the idea, although fire permits are still required for groups of 25 people or more.
Last year the NPS, which has the responsibility for governing the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, enacted the current program.
“Thanks to push-back from the public, a year ago they moved to preserve and expand access to fires on Ocean Beach and the result has been, I think, very positive,” said Tom Price, a founding member of Burners Without Borders. “There’s now more fire rings. There’s more garbage cans, better signs, more hours to use it, so what was going to be a tragedy, losing one of the last great free things to do in San Francisco, has now, again, for I think the third time, become a success from people pushing back for what they would like to have happen.”
One of the reasons initially given by the NPS for getting rid of the bonfire pits entirely was the expense of cleaning them. The GGNRA has an annual budget of about $330,000 for general grounds-keeping at Ocean Beach, most of which goes to hire a staff of between three to five people, plus materials. Of that total, about $150,000 was needed for cleaning out and maintaining the fire pits.
A year ago the NPS committed to contributing $230,000 to the Ocean Beach maintenance budget, and former District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar got the City to pony up another $185,000 last year to assist with the cleanups.
Fires at Ocean Beach often include the burning of inappropriate materials, including wooden pallets, furniture, Christmas trees, glass and toxic materials. Oftentimes, these materials do not burn completely and a significant amount of debris is left for NPS staff to pick up, posing a safety hazard for them due to the potential toxins in the material and broken glass and nails or spikes left over. It is also common for NPS staff to discover that fires have not been extinguished properly and therefore have to properly remove still-burning embers from the beach.
In addition to the 9:30 p.m. curfew for bonfires, the adjacent beach parking lot must be empty by 10 p.m., although the beach itself will remain open 24 hours a day. No glass will be allowed on the beach and only “clean” wood will be allowed in the bonfires. Burning wooden pallets is not allowed.
The bonfire pits will be cleaned about once every two
weeks. “You can’t come out and burn your couch or your Christmas tree,” said Sargent. Groups of 10 or more minors must be supervised by at least one person 18 years-of-age or older.
The existing signage associated with the fire program will be replaced with a simpler design. A plan for the design, number and location of replacement and additional signs has been developed.
Informational flyers will be created for distribution to visitors, local residents, businesses and schools. The flyer will also be available to visitors at multiple locations throughout the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Price said he is pleased with the new plan, but he wants to push for more bonfire pits, signage and trash cans. “This was a start. We’re going to wait and see what the data shows. They haven’t collected the data from last year yet, so wait and see,” Price said. “We’re going to try to find ways that we can better monitor the beach. “At least we’re not going in the wrong direction anymore,” he added.
The NPS will update and maintain a web page with information specifically about Ocean Beach bonfires and associated rules, regulations and laws at the website at: www.nps.gov/goga/learn/ management/fire_beachfireregs.