A summer evening on the Carmel Beach
If there’s one activity that pretty much defines what it means to be human, it’s sitting around a fire. Your parents did it, their parents did it, and so did everyone else in your family tree going back for as many as 1.7 million or more years – a time long before anyone remotely resembling a modern person even existed. Until quite recently, it was something that nearly everyone did nearly every day.
Given this history, it’s hardly a surprise that so many of us, even if we live in places where we can stay warm and cook without burning wood, still like to sit around a fire with family and friends. After all, it’s the oldest cultural tradition we have; and one we share with all of humanity.
Beach fire at sunset
One need only look at the thick middens of campfire debris that line the bluffs to see that people have been socializing around fires on and above the Carmel Beach for as long as people have been on the scene – probably more than 10,000 years.
This is why the outright ban on Carmel Beach fires, expected to be issued tomorrow – December 1, 2015 – by the Carmel City Council is kind of a big deal. It marks the end of an era stretching back thousands of years.
So why are they doing this? Isn’t Carmel usually pretty militant about protecting its traditions – especially traditions popular with tourists? And what’s the problem with sitting around a fire in the evening anyway?
Once upon a time, not so many years ago, fires on the Carmel Beach were not regulated. In keeping with Carmel’s bohemian roots, people built fires whenever they wanted, wherever they wanted, and sat around them for as long as they wanted; sometimes all night. This did not appear to cause any serious problems.
Yet, in what seems to have been a big-brotherly effort to make the beach fire scene easier to monitor and control, the City Council, at some point, decided to limit fires to the easily patrolled southern end of the beach and to require all fires be put out by 10:00 pm. These rules have been vigorously enforced.
Police patrol the Carmel Beach
Whatever advantages corralling the fires into a much smaller area might have had, there was also a negative consequence. Charcoal built up quickly over the summer in the fire area, darkening the famous white sand. As increasing tourism, increasing population, and fire bans on other beaches increased the number of fires, this problem grew progressively worse.
By 2009, when we last commented on the Carmel Beach fire controversy, quite a few Carmel residents were demanding that fires be banned due to the unsightly charcoal which, they complained, was migrating out of the fire area and soiling sand further to the north. These white sand fans were joined by a few pearl-clutchers still worried about beach fires giving Carmel youth an opportunity to take drugs and have sex.
While these arguments never seemed to gain much traction, another negative consequence of concentrating the fires in a small area, the impact of the smoke on nearby homes, would soon move to the fore and do much better.
But however much the City Council may have wanted to oblige residents concerned with sand, smoke or sex, there was something that, until now, made a complete ban infeasible.
The Coastal Commission.
The Coastal Commission wants to preserve opportunities for coastal recreation for everyone, both rich and poor. Since beach fires are pretty much the least expensive way for a visitor to enjoy an evening in Carmel, banning them, for whatever reason, would reduce opportunities for the non-rich to have fun at the beach. The Commission would be all too likely to see complaints about charcoal in the sand as frivolous and they would doubtless wonder why Carmel is so much more concerned about the smoke from beach fires than it is from the much more numerous fires located in residents’ fireplaces.
This is why the City Council has spent much of the past year trying to figure out what kind of additional fire limitations the Coastal Commission will let them get away with.
If the Council was hoping to convince the Coastal Commission that they’re not trying to exclude poor people, they probably didn’t do their cause any good when they enacted an interim Friday through Sunday fire ban this year; a restriction which clearly falls much harder on working people than on the idle rich.
But now the Council believes it may have found a way to ban fires whether the Coastal Commission likes it or not. Inhaling smoke is, after all, bad for you, and they have monitored the air adjacent to homes on Scenic Drive and demonstrated, to no one’s surprise, that the air in the middle of the smoke cloud does in fact occasionally reach unhealthy levels.
Based on this finding, they are expected to pass an ordinance tomorrow night declaring beach fires, including hibachis and charcoal grills, a nuisance and banning them as such in the name of public health.
This will, of course, mean that while those with a million or more to spend on a Carmel home will remain free to burn all the fires they like in their fireplaces and backyard fire pits, everyone else will be out of luck… or will it?
Probably realizing that the ordinance would be subject to legal challenge if they declared that only smoke originating on the beach constitutes a nuisance, the drafters included some language about no one being permitted to discharge “from any source whatsoever” air contaminants that cause annoyance to or endanger the health of any considerable number of persons.
Let the neighborhood battles over chimney emissions begin. Could this be the Full Employment Act for lawyers we’ve all been waiting for?
Look on the bright side. Less fires = less carbon dioxide emissions. Not that it will make any difference in a world that won’t stop burning fossil fuels.