Fire permit plan washes out at Ocean Beach

A tsunami of public outcry has extinguished a National Park Service plan to require permits and the payment of fees for people to have campfires on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.

As federal land, the beach is administered by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Their Director of Communications, Howard Levitt, said they received more than 500 comments about fires on Ocean Beach:

“As a result of those comments … we’ve stepped away from the idea of a permit system. … The permit system was not popular among commenters on the proposed rule and we dropped it.”

The permit system would have applied to groups of less than 25 people. Groups larger than 25 already have to reserve a permit and pay a fee using a separate system.

Many local citizens and advocates showed up to public meetings with the GGNRA and voiced strong opinions against the proposal. One of them was Tom Price, who has been involved in the off-then-on-again issue for a decade. Price said is relieved by agency’s decision.

“I think they had an attack of common sense. … No one becomes a Park Service ranger to become the S’more-police but that’s what they were setting up their rangers to do. The permit system the Park Service proposed was going to be a law-enforcement nightmare.”

Price added:

“They would have had to go up to every single person at a camp fire and make sure they had their permit and it was the right permit holder, they’d done it in the right way and they were at the right fire ring on the right day.”

The Park Service is also going to increase the number of fire rings available in the designated area across Great Highway from the Beach Chalet restaurant by four, going from 12 up to 16.

Levitt said:

“Because a number of the fire rings have disintegrated, we’re going to have 16 much stronger fire rings. … We felt that within that area between stairwells 15 and 20 there was room, we could add a few more fire rings.”

One part of the plan which the agency did not back away from was the idea to remove the fire rings during the winter months, from November through February, which effectively bans bonfires on the beach during a third of the year. Levitt said

“There will be a period in which fires would not be permitted on the beach and so by adding fire rings during the eight months of the year, which of course are the prime months for fires … we’ll be able to meet more of the demand for fire rings.”

Reasons for the winter ban are twofold: a general and significant decrease in demand that time of year, and a tendency for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to declare more “spare the air” days during those months. Prohibiting wood fires on the beach will help with those days.

Price said:

“I think that’s a dumb, unjustified decision. The sand doesn’t need to rest.”

He reasoned that if there is less demand this time of year then by definition there is less of a problem with pollution being created.

The GGNRA says it has an annual budget of $330,000 for general groundskeeping at Ocean Beach, most of which goes to hire a staff of between three to five people, plus materials, of which they estimate at least $150,000 is needed just for cleaning out and maintaining the fire pits.

The NPS has committed to contributing $230,000 to the Ocean Beach maintenance budget, and District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar got The City to pony up another $185,000 this year. Price lauded Mar’s efforts to help fund beach cleaning:

“That’s long overdue. … San Francisco and the Park Service share responsibility for this resource. …  I’m glad to see (them) working together on this. They should. And that is in large part due to Eric Mar. Let’s give credit where credit is due. (Mar) has shown exceptional leadership. … And he also came up with a bunch of money to help enable that.”

Another change from the original proposal is an easing of age limitations. The original plan required whoever took out the permit to be at least 21 years old. The new plan only requires one person at least 18 years old to be with a group of ten or more minors.

Both the current policy and original plan was for all fires to be out by 9 p.m. but the new proposal pushes that curfew to 9:30 p.m. Levitt said:

“That would mean that even at the longest days of the year, which is around the Summer Solstice, there would still be an hour of darkness for people to enjoy a fire in the evening.”

Price considers the enjoyment of fires on Ocean Beach to be a vital part of local culture:

“A fire on Ocean Beach is one of the last, great free things you can do in a city that is pricing the poor and middle class out of existence.”