Future flickers for Ocean Beach bonfires

The future of bonfires on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach was the burning question at the Cliff House restaurant last Thursday, where National Park Service personnel discussed options that include a total ban on them or reservations by permit only.

Aaron Roth, a deputy superintendent with the NPS said:

“So, what does the future look like? To be honest, we feel like we’re headed to a place of no fires on the beach. … It’s not really a desirable outcome but it is headed toward that inevitability if we don’t have change. Something has got to change.”

Now is not the first time the NPS has considered a ban on bonfires at Ocean Beach. In 2006 they did the same thing, and that was when Burners Without Borders first got involved.

An organization born at the juncture between the Burning Man art festival and Hurricane Katrina in 2005,Burners Without Borders organized four teams of artists to create fire rings for the beach and keep the right to burn there alive.

The social experiment in community service had mixed results. Even though two of the fire rings were pulled of the beach within the first year, and the last was snuffed in May 2014, it nevertheless succeeded in avoiding a total ban.

Roth laid out three ideas that the NPS is considering: a total ban on Ocean Beach bonfires, getting revenue from The City to help pay for cleaning up the beach or requiring a permit of between $25 and $75 to reserve bonfire pits.

One man in the audience responded:

“Are you kidding me?”

Another said:

“Unbelievable.”

And a third:

“That’s outrageous.”

Roth rebutted that reserving a campsite in a national park usually runs about $35:

“One of the advantages to this permit system is you’re basically guaranteed to get a pit. … That’s another thing about these fires outside the pits. The issue we have with the current program is ‘why do we get so many fires outside the pits that cause a lot of problems?’ “

Roth added:

“One of the issues is that if you’re showing up are you guaranteed a pit? … One of the advantages we see in this system is that it essentially guarantees that you have a pit.”

Tom Price, a founding member of Burners Without Borders, asked about people who just spontaneously want to go hang out at the beach with a bonfire:

“Many of them, like me, come to the beach on an impulse basis. … If they’re a teenager they probably don’t have a credit card and can’t pay for a permit, and reserve it online. What process is there going to be to enable people spontaneously to use (bonfire pits) if they’re not from here and don’t know about this in advance. If you have to make a reservation in advance and they’re all booked up on a weekend, can you not use your national park in that way?”

Price added:

“I’m just concerned that, having been involved with this process eight years ago, having raised the money for the fire pits previously and watched the thousands of letters that were generated, I know there’s a strong feeling about this. And so I’m hoping that we can create a solution that doesn’t require a credit card and plan weeks in advance just to go cook some smores.”

Roth responded that a lot of young people have smartphones now and can make purchases through them:

“This generation has the ability to access these services and they are used to doing so. … And there are many park services, from climbing Half Dome to camping anywhere in the state of California, where you have to plan ahead and that is just reality.”

Roth said the NPS budget for maintaining Ocean Beach is now $300,000 annually. Half of that goes toward “sand maintenance,” leaving $150,000 for cleaning up the fire pits, which he said pays for two workers but is not enough for the job, so the permit fees would help pay for more workers or The City could chip in.

Sunset District resident Steven Hill said he lives four blocks from the beach and he’s been involved in working with the NPS on this issue for a decade:

“In the amount of time that’s passed the thing that the NPS has been saying hasn’t changed at all. … You don’t have the resources to do the job properly and you haven’t been able to get the resources. I sympathize but at this point to hear you saying that you’re thinking of shutting down the fires entirely just tells me that you are not the right agency to oversee the administration of this jewel that we have here in San Francisco.”

Austin Staunch is another member of Burners Without Borders, and she criticized the NPS for a lack of signage instructing beachgoers on what can be brought to a bonfire on Ocean Beach:

“I remember being at those meetings seven years ago and some of the things we talked about were that on our end we would raise tons of money, we would make these pits and then on y’alls end there would be more signage. There would be education that would permanently sit out there and let people know don’t put your fires out with sand, don’t do this, don’t do that, and that never really happened.”

Staunch added:

“It kind of seemed like y’alls side of the bargain wasn’t really held up that way and it didn’t really help create the success that it could have. And so going forward I think that would be really important, is to make that signage.”

She was also skeptical that reserving fire pits by selling permits was a good idea.

“I feel like the higher the price goes the more of a sense of entitlement, and the more of a sense of conflict that would arise. … We all saw that video that went around Facebook about the guys that tried to get the permit for the soccer field and they kicked off the local kids, and it created so much conflict. So I would encourage you to keep it a very accessible price, so it doesn’t inspire the entitlement and the conflict that it could.”