Carmel’s decade-long debate over wood-burning fires is going into overtime. Again.
The Carmel City Council was set to consider on Tuesday, May 7, how to conduct the remaining two years of its beach fire pilot program. Going into the meeting the council had two very different opinions to rely on.
The Planning Commission had voted on April 10 in favor of propane-only fires for one year as a test. The next night the Forest and Beach Commission voted in support of retaining some wood-burning fires but with continued air monitoring.
On Tuesday, both pro-wood fire and anti-wood fire residents showed up to council to plead their cases. Pro-wood fires evoked memories of good times and bonding with friends and family around a crackling fire. Propane-only advocates decried the health dangers of smoke.
The fight for propane got a last minute boost in a letter the city received right before the council meeting from Richard Stedman, air pollution control officer for the Monterey Bay Air Resources District.
“From a public health perspective, propane fired heating devices are much cleaner than wood burning,” he writes, adding that there are some emissions from propane combustion, but it’s still cleaner. “With the use of propane, smoke and other combustion-related pollutants are significantly reduced. As such, MBARD recommends propane for beach fires over wood.”
Stedman also threw significant doubts on the validity of air monitoring results that show decreased particulate matter coming from the beach. He said he told former mayor Steve Dallas that the monitors being used by the city were "unlikely” to detect smoke from the city’s beach fires. He called them a new technology the air district had a hard time operating in a marine environment.
Stedman also said they were “incredibly inexpensive, and as a result, not very robust. As such, the data collected by these monitors is, more than likely, inaccurate and imprecise.”
One by one, residents arguing for propane pointed to Stedman’s letter as proof that they were right.
That didn’t stop residents arguing in favor of tradition to ask that the city keep at least some wood-burning pits.
Seth Parker said he has a “lifetime of memories” of playing in the water, freezing “our butts off” then coming up the beach for a fire. It’s a town of traditions and he didn’t want to see this one disappear. He was tired of people who had zero tolerance. “It doesn’t take into account anybody but you,” he said.
Like the commissions that voted in April, city councilmembers were divided. Councilmember Carrie Theis said the pilot program did a good job limiting the number of wood fires from unlimited to only nine. Not only is the air clearer, but the white sand is cleaner, too, she said. As for propane, the pilot already showed that it’s not a popular choice. (A staff report reported there were only 32 observed propane fires last year.)
“I’m concerned that if we ban beach fires then we are going to ban fireplaces and wood pizza ovens in commercial districts,” she said.
Councilmember Jeff Baron was conflicted, and said he couldn’t entirely throw out the tradition of wood-burning fires without the city first trying to better promote propane-fires.
“There are people that come to use fires and that is important to me,” he said. “Propane-only fires will eliminate fires on the beach.”
Mayor Dave Potter and councilmembers Bobby Richards and Jan Reimers were willing to amend the pilot project to use propane-only for one year. They voted over Theis and Baron to direct staff to come back with a plan detailing how propane-only fires might work.
A bit of cold water partially doused the flames of a propane-only plan however. Planning director Marc Wiener told council that they will most likely have to pass an urgency ordinance and file a permit with the California Coastal Commission, a process that could take up to a year. It opens up the possibility that wood-burning advocates could file an appeal with the Coastal Commission, further complicating and delaying the process.