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Park Service kicks sand on Ocean Beach bonfires

Spontaneous fireside gatherings, mid-winter cookouts and high school bonfires will all soon be history at Ocean Beach after the National Park Service last month announced plans to require permits for all beach fires.

A dozen fire rings will operate for limited hours — at around $25 to $35 per permit — for a five-hour time slot. Also, all fire rings will be removed from the beach from November to February, effectively banning Ocean Beach fires during winter months. Permits will only be issued to those 18 years of age or older, so underage teens will need at least one adult with them.

Two time slots are available, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., or 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and reservations will be either by phone or the website, up to 30 days in advance or as late as a few hours ahead of time. Up to 25 people will be allowed by these permits at each fire ring. Larger groups will have to go through the existing special use permit process.

Aaron Roth, a deputy superintendent with the NPS, said:

“A permit system doesn’t work without enforcement. … So we’re going to continue to deploy that and we’re hoping that that enforcement can be more successful and deal less with alcohol and drugs and more on permit compliance.”

Roth said an annual budget of $330,000 exists for general groundskeeping at Ocean Beach, mostly for a staff of between three to five people, plus materials. About $150,000 is needed just for cleaning out and maintaining the fire pits.

The NPS estimates that the permit system itself will cost about $15,000 annually to run, with another $35,000 annually dedicated to “public engagement.” They estimate that the permits will garner revenue of about $60,000 from the fees.

The NPS will contribute $230,000 to the Ocean Beach maintenance budget, and recently District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar announced The City will kick in another $185,000 this year. It will cost about $165,000 to enforce the program.

Although Roth described it as a three-year test to be revisited and assessed later, others at the meeting saw it as the result of a decade-long struggle between locals who use the beach and a federal government trying to shed responsibility for administering it properly.

Tom Price, a founding member of Burners Without Borders, the organization that put fire pits on that beach in 2007 when NPS threatened to ban bonfires, said at the public meeting last month announcing the new system:

“I can’t believe after so many meetings this is the best you can come up with.”

Price expressed skepticism that the permitting system would make things easier on the federal police who patrol that area, especially the original 16 to 20 fire rings has been scaled down to a dozen:

“It doesn’t account for someone making a reservation and then not showing up at the last minute. And then a resource (is) available and then as soon as someone sits down and takes it, then what happens? … You’re making it a catastrophically compounding law enforcement problem when the only problem that you have is there’s not enough places to follow the rules.”

Price added:

“… What your proposal will do is turn rangers into ticket cops for checking permits. It will lock one of the most accessible resources in the most expensive city in the country off limits entirely for months at a time. And then for the months that it is available, it will only be available if you plan ahead, if you’ve got a credit card, if you’ve been able to get a reservation and if they weren’t already all taken.”

Steven Hill, an Outer Sunset resident who has long been involved in this issue, told the NPS at their recent public meeting that the policy will fail:

“I just feel like you’re not listening. … When I hear about the law enforcement issues down there, I say to myself, ‘my god, we’re in a major urban area.’ … These guys just don’t want to do law enforcement. They just want any law enforcement issue to somehow magically go away at a beach in a major urban area, and that’s just not the real world. If you’re trying to design policy to create that, you’re going to design a failed policy.”

Captain Pamela A. Smith, an assistant commander of the US Park Police in San Francisco, said the procedure for officers who find people burning in the rings without a permit might start with negotiation, but they could also issue citations:

“We will take enforcement action if you have a permit and you’ve reserved it, you paid for it, you contact us and you let us know. … The officers will come, the rangers will come, and we will ensure that that person is removed from that particular area or group.”

Dan Merer focused on the fact that this new policy would effectively cut many teenagers out entirely:

“You basically are cutting our kids out of having fires now. … Friday and Saturday there’s a ton of teenagers down there having fires. … I’m not going to go down with my daughter and hang out with a bunch of teenagers for three hours while they have a bonfire. They don’t want me there and I don’t want to be there.”

Merer added:

“When you’re basically taking away one of the few things now that just average low-income and middle-income San Francisco kids have … do you have any suggestions for how we can include our kids again?”

Noemi M. Robinson, the chief of the NPS’ special park uses, said minors cannot legally sign contracts, and these permits are technically considered legal contracts.

Merer responded:

“Well then, maybe that alone should make you reconsider because you are banning our kids from beach bonfires by doing this.”

A version of this story appeared in the October 2015 editions of the Sunset Beacon and Richmond Review newspapers.

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