Beach fires are a hot topic in Pacific Beach area

Beach fires are "the talk of the town right now,” according to Capt. Richard Marcello of Pacific Beach’s Fire Station 21.
Beach fires are “the talk of the town right now,” according to Capt. Richard Marcello of Pacific Beach’s Fire Station 21.
(File / Los Angeles Times)

A disparate catalog of problems — from illegal open fires on the beaches to lower participation in this year’s U.S. Census — were addressed by an equally wide range of speakers at the August Pacific Beach Town Council meeting.

But presentations also discussed developments such as enhanced environmental planning by the city of San Diego for the northeast corner of Mission Bay.

The 70 people attending the online meeting Aug. 19 engaged all the topics with plenty of questions, but the issue of illicit fires on the beach and their hazards drew the most fervor, spreading into the fire and police department presentations.

“That seems to be the talk of the town right now,” said Capt. Richard Marcello of PB’s Fire Station 21. “South Mission, Crown Point, Pacific Beach, all over the area, kind of spilling into La Jolla. ... [It’s] the hottest topic right now, believe me. Because when you’re dealing with them all night, like I do personally, it’s definitely an issue.”

Officer Brandon Broaddus, neighborhood relations officer for the Police Department’s Northern Division, agreed that the phenomenon is widespread. During the weekend of Aug. 14-16 alone, Broaddus said, police beach teams dealt with 52 separate incidents, resulting in at least one citation.

First responders dispatched to the scene are usually from the Fire-Rescue Department, which lacks authority to cite violators.

Broaddus said the escalation of the problem is outpacing officials’ ability to confront it.

“If we’re writing the ticket, they’re definitely going to get the message [to stop],” he said. “[But] I think if one person is able to do it down on the beach, they’re going to let their friends know.”

Beach fires on the sand are illegal less because of any threat from the flames but rather the pollution and the danger of smoldering remnants the next day, Marcello said.

“People aren’t going to put their coals in their car and drive them home,” he said. “What happens is people end up burying it under the sand, trying to put it out, and they just leave. Then we show up to treat burn patients the following day. It’s nothing you want to see at all.”

Local residents pointed out that smoke from several fires burning simultaneously at Mission Bay and ocean beaches can reach homes blocks away and trigger attacks in people with chronic respiratory diseases.

“[The smoke] is not just a nuisance,” Marcella Bothwell said. “This is a real health problem.”

Because fires in contained fire rings are legal on the beach, Marcello said legal changes might be required to address the smoke.

“At what point and what areas are going to be designated for those fires?” Marcello said.

Everyone generally agreed that the spark for so many beach fires this year is the scarcity of activities for a summer evening with the closure of bars and entertainment venues because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Denise Friedman, who is leading a task force working with the Mission Bay Park Committee to identify issues in the park, argued that the fires are only the tip of a larger problem in the community.

“So the bars are empty and our beaches are filled with masses of people drinking and partying all night long,” she said. “We call [police] and because the parties are so big, I don’t know that you all want to come. ... They’re starting during the day when it’s easier to shut them down, and they just keep growing and growing because nobody comes.”

Broaddus promised to investigate details of police unresponsiveness to particular incidents but countered that the scope of problems on the beach is specific to the unique summer circumstances this year.

“Everybody’s on the beach,” he said. “It’s like the Fourth of July every weekend.”

Census count lagging

In another development, Raquel Juarez of the U.S. Census Bureau told the audience that Pacific Beach had fallen behind in the count conducted every 10 years, with approximately 59 percent of the local population tallied to date, compared with 67 percent at the same point in the 2010 census. The 2020 census is a snapshot of how many people lived in every location in the country as of April 1.

Because federal funding for everything from schools to roads is directly tied to census figures, Juarez warned of the consequences of an undercount.

“You’re trying to reach 100 percent, which obviously we know might not happen,” she said. “But the closer you are, the more likely you are to get those funds. If you don’t reach your 2010 budget, you’re going to get money taken away for 10 years.”

The primary culprits for the current PB undercount are short-term vacation rental properties, according to Juarez.

“We’re really behind, and a lot of it is attributed to ... short-term rentals and long-term rentals where the tenants aren’t completing the census form,” she said. “Every unit, every dwelling in the Pacific Beach/Mission Beach area has to be counted, regardless of whether someone was living there on April 1 or not.”

She asked residents to report properties they know are STVRs by calling (619) 695-5657.

Marsh restoration

Andrew Meyer, conservation director of the San Diego Audubon Society, reported that the city proposed a supplemental environmental project, or SEP, to the Regional Water Quality Control Board in July for an alternative planning study to restore tidal marsh wetlands as part of its De Anza Cove Revitalization Project for the northeast corner of Mission Bay.

The alternative plan will take into account expected sea level of two meters (about 6.5 feet) in examining the viability of adding at least 80 acres of wetlands to the area, Meyer said. With its own Rewild Mission Bay feasibility studies to restore marsh to the site, the Audubon Society will monitor the city’s planning process to try to ensure that access and amenities the community wants are included before the water quality board votes on the proposal Oct. 14, Meyer added.

“This proposal to the RWQCB doesn’t say anything about what the rest of the park will look like,” he said. “That’s obviously critical to all of us who live in PB. It really matters what other land uses are there.”

The $1.1 million SEP study will be financed from a $2.5 million fine the city paid for the accidental spill of about 7 million gallons of raw sewage into Tecolate Creek in January 2016, according to Karl Rand, chairman of the Pacific Beach Planning Group.

“Wetlands restoration along the coast is important because it sequesters carbon, because we’ve lost so much habitat, because it filters water quality, but not because it will lessen the amount of sea level rise that we are expecting” due to global warming, Meyer said. “In terms of its global impact, unfortunately it’s just tiny.”