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Douse the wood smoke 

Southern California should be able to breathe easier

Smoking banned at Starbucks and 4 Other Surprising Places” was the headline on a popular website

Perhaps most surprising was the ban enacted by a city in Southern California that prohibits smoking on outdoor patios or balconies, unless “those patios were enclosed and could be completely shut off from the outdoors.” 

Some bans go down more easily than others. Cigarette smoking is so uncool; to protest on behalf of its OK-ness would confer the ultimate in pariah status.

But not wood-burning. Hell hath no fury. Indeed, the public is fuming. In California fire-pit beach towns (Huntington, Newport, Corona del Mar) the combined momentum of the ignorant and the irate has reached frenzy speed. Venom and various lengths of kindling are aimed in the direction of Diamond Bar where the South Coast Air Quality Management District plans to stick their noses out in defense of public health and ban all the fire pits that currently smoke out the residents of Southern California. 

At least, they were going to stick out their noses, but now, apparently, they can’t smell and are going to compromise. There is not much room for compromise when it comes to health, particularly cancer. But that doesn’t matter to the loud and annoying pro-smoke voices who use a lot of “a-hole” in their commentaries to the New York Times and L.A. Times. The unfortunate residents who are forced to breathe smoke are also “a-holes” and are told to move their “effing” houses if they don’t like it. The city of Huntington Beach calls fire pits a “rich Californian tradition and a major draw for tourists”—city talk which translates to moneyed nonsense. Did the mission people sit around bonfires drinking Bud Light? Should we sacrifice the health and well-being of locals simply to entice French tourists?

No, we should not. We should put our foot down hard and fast on this unholy engagement with smoke. Wood smoke kills people, plain and simple. Once wood smoke is in the air, forget about oxygen, forget about smelling anything else, such as flowers, plants, or grass. Smoke dominates the environment in which it finds itself. Our parks and beaches have become unnatural, killing worlds. The Nobel Prize was won in 1933 by an Austrian physician named Otto Warburg who linked the lack of oxygen to the onset of all cancers. Add Alzheimer’s, COPD, stroke, depression—all connected to a “compromised” supply of oxygen. 

Part of the fire pit “compromise” involves an illusory sense of distance, as if the effects of accumulated smoke drop off at “700 feet.” One only has to have a mediocre sense of smell to know that is not true, to know that the entire city of Huntington Beach, for miles inland, is heavy with smoke in the summer. The 405 smells clean in comparison.

The suggested “alternative fuel” is a promising idea. However, it has to be the only allowable method in order to succeed. One rarely succeeds with mixed messages. “Yes, this bonfire business is bad, but go ahead with a (false) buffer zone and have some distance between pits and maybe you might want to try propane or gas. Later.” 

Yeah, later a-hole dude.” You are dealing with the public, which tends to be mob-ish. (That same public is causing “an unprecedented rise in vandalism” in National Parks.) So let them have their cake while making sure that those who don’t eat cake don’t choke.

Which is where the cigarette ban mentioned earlier makes the most sense. Smoking is prohibited on outdoor patios or balconies, unless “those patios were enclosed and could be completely shut off from the outdoors.” 

By all means, keep the stone-age alive with bonfires but insist that all bonfires be enclosed and completely shut off from the outdoors.

The outdoors. How nice that sounds. How American. And how much the heart of this beach issue is not pollution, but freedom. 

Who owns the outdoors? Who owns the air? Does a polluter have more freedom than anyone else? Looks like the South Coast Air Quality Management District is starting to cave, is starting to think they do.


Mary Power Giacoletti lives in San Simeon. Send comments to the executive editor at


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