EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Early into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors decided to pull back on a defining feature of Dockweiler State Beach in Playa Del Rey, removing the concrete bowls placed for people to build nighttime bonfires.
The reasoning was simple: If the county is trying to prevent the spread of disease, it should pause something that causes gatherings.
However, the plan appears to have backfired.
Beachgoers have taken to setting their own bonfires on Dockweiler, in random places across the beach, leading to dangerous situations for beachgoers and county personnel alike. Officials are seeing evidence of leftovers from at least a dozen fires each morning, as well as one scorched lifeguard tower.
“We’ve always had this problem to some level, but not to the excessive degree that we have it now,” said DBH spokesperson Carol Baker. “It’s one of those things where you go, ‘Wow, what are they thinking?’”
As of a May report, L.A. County beaches are seeing a 60 percent increase in visitors over the same time last year, up to eight million visitors as of early July. And summer beach bonfires are, as L.A. County Lifeguard Pono Barnes said, a quintessential county beach experience.
“It’s a very popular part of our beach…it’s a huge draw for residents to come down there onto the beach and stay late into the evening with a nice bonfire,” Barnes said.
But as local officials have sought to control the spread of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, fire pits were removed across county beaches.
The Department of Beaches and Harbors first publicly mentioned ongoing problems with illegal fires in early July. On July 12, DBH staff found that lifeguard tower 54 had been scorched in the night, with the blackened remains of a fire nearby.
Barnes and his fellow firefighters have seen fires popping up regularly during the pandemic, particularly as they’re driving by the beach area at night after lifeguards have closed up their more comprehensive daytime protection of the beaches. (Dockweiler Beach is under the law enforcement jurisdiction of LAPD’s Pacific Division.)
The bootleg bonfires pose a hazard to all beachgoers for many reasons, Barnes said. Wooden shipping pallets burn well, but the nails that construct them are left behind after the fire goes out – which doesn’t always happen as soon as the fire is covered in sand, he said.
Wood may still burn for hours after the fire is buried, well through the night and into the morning, leaving behind a smoldering pit.
“Step on that and you’ve got pretty extensive burns; there’ve been a few beach weekends with very serious burns to feet, legs, and small children,” Barnes said.
DBH spokesperson Baker also said that the fires lead to problems in ensuring that the beaches are cleaned throughout the week. L.A. County uses beach sanitizers, tractor-towed sand-cleaning machines that screen foreign items, including plastics, tar patties, cigarette butts, and bits of wood from the sand.
“But we don’t want to be driving tractors over fires,” Baker said. “You can’t bring heavy equipment though, you have to do it by hand, and it’s very labor-intensive.”
Baker believes that people are feeling pent up from the pandemic, leading to an increase in fires despite the removal of the pits.
“It’s obviously safer to be outside than in an enclosed space with a lot of people, but this is not a safe situation to be building bonfires at the beach,” Baker said.