by Tom Prete, Ocean Beach Bulletin

With the Cliff House in the background, visitors to Ocean Beach near the Beach Chalet gather around a fire built from wooden pallets. (Photo: Tom Prete / Ocean Beach Bulletin)
With the Cliff House in the background, visitors to Ocean Beach near the Beach Chalet gather around a fire built from wooden pallets. (Photo: Tom Prete / Ocean Beach Bulletin)

Big changes to how the Golden Gate National Recreation Area handles fires on Ocean Beach could be in store, due in part to crime, litter and budgetary concerns.

To many people, sitting around a bonfire on Ocean Beach is a cherished tradition and essential part of what makes the federally managed beach a special place.

“I think there’s a very important and basic part of California culture here,” said Eli Saddler, executive director of OceanHealth.Org and a member of the San Francisco chapter of the Surfrider Foundation who’s been helping the group address bonfire issues.

Right now, visitors are allowed to build fires on the northern part of the beach near Golden Gate Park, in designated fire pits provided between seawall stairwells 21 and 28. But the way the GGNRA sees it, what really goes on after dark at Ocean Beach bears little resemblance to an old-fashioned sing-along around a modest fire.

“It hasn’t just been the classic 1950s clambake on the beach,” said Howard Levitt, GGNRA communications director.

Instead, he said, rangers and National Park Police have had to deal with “everything from underage drinking to … assaults, narcotic use,” and other crime, plus trash, hot coals, nails and broken glass left behind.

“It’s a shame that it hasn’t remained a really wholesome activity, as it should be,” Levitt said.

All those fires add up to a lot of time, effort and money spent making sure park visitors stay safe, a situation exacerbated by federal budget “sequestration” cuts, Levitt said. He said that although he couldn’t yet provide data to quantify the crime problem, the GGNRA is working on compiling that information to support the agency’s claims.

However, GGNRA law enforcement records obtained by the Ocean Beach Bulletin show that in 2011, officers responded to at least 40 complaints about bonfires on Ocean Beach or nearby GGNRA lands. That figure represents only direct complaints about fires and does not include bonfires that may have been burned in violation of fire rules but about which no one complained, and it doesn’t include crimes that may have occurred near the fires.

Given the number of people who visit the beach for bonfires on some nights, some crime and litter may be inevitable. On Friday, June 21 a reporter counted 31 bonfires on Ocean Beach between the Cliff House and Fulton Street, at least a few of them fueled by piles of wooden pallets.

That’s many more fires than the half-dozen pits currently provided for them, and almost twice as many as would be allowed if the 16 pits Saddler says are supposed to be there were installed. At 9:30 p.m., just half an hour before the 10 p.m. closing time for the City-owned parking lot closest to the area where fires are allowed, west of Golden Gate Park, groups of people were still arriving on the beach with armloads of wood to start new fires.

But not every night is like that: The previous night, at the same time, just one fire burned in the same part of the beach.

And just because some people choose to ignore the rules about beach fires doesn’t mean that everyone should be punished by shutting them down altogether, Saddler said.

“There are people who do bad things. We live in an urban environment,” he said.

The fact that fires are allowed on Ocean Beach at all is due largely to an agreement among the GGNRA, San Francisco’s Surfrider chapter and the group Burners Without Borders. That agreement, hammered out under the GGNRA’s previous superintendent, replaced an earlier potential ban on fires with an experimental arrangement that restricted fires to their current zone near the park, brought in artistic fire pits created by Burners Without Borders and asked Surfrider to organize frequent cleanups of that part of the beach.

While Burners and Surfrider did put in substantial effort in good faith, Levitt said, things just aren’t working out.

Both Saddler and Levitt said they would seek to provide the Ocean Beach Bulletin with a copy of that document, but at the time of this article’s publication neither had done so. Neither responded to subsequent emails requesting a copy of the agreement.

Levitt said that whatever changes the GGNRA eventually proposes, things will remain as they are through at least the summer. And after that, any proposal would go through an official process including an opportunity for public input.

The Surfrider Foundation San Francisco chapter isn’t waiting for that process, though. The group already is collecting information about the beach fires and possible changes through an online survey to inform its positions on the future of bonfires on Ocean Beach.

For more information about Ocean Beach bonfire regulations, visit the GGNRA website.

GGNRA Could Snuff Out Ocean Beach Bonfires 25 June,2013Jon Brooks

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