Sorry, bonfire fans — the fire rings at this SLO County beach aren’t coming back

Sorry, bonfire fans — the seasonal fire rings at Olde Port Beach are a thing of the past.

Port San Luis Harbor District, which manages Avila Beach as well as the smaller surrounding beaches, is no longer putting out fire rings due to the “increased fire risk” as well as other concerns related to the popular program, harbor director Suzy Watkins said.

“To clarify, fire rings were seasonal (summer months) and were last put out in 2019, so this is not a new change,” Watkins wrote in an email to The Tribune.

The fire rings were traditionally in place from mid-March through early November but were removed during the winter because the tide would make the beach inaccessible, according to a district staff report.

In 2019, the district began looking into whether it should continue the fire ring program amid a slew of concerns about the risks.

Watkins said the Port San Luis Harbor District Harbor Commission was concerned at that time about the “significant time and expense of maintaining the fire rings,” as well as the district’s liability if beachgoers were injured by hot coals or sharp debris in the sand, increased vandalism in that area and the potential environmental damage from trash and air pollution.

According to a FAQ posted on the district’s website, staff noticed “a steady increase” in dangerous debris like broken glass, nails, and aluminum cans around the bonfire sites. They also worried about hot coals and embers that when covered in sand could remain hot for days and pose a burn risk for anyone who steps on it.

“All of these issues were complicated by the fact that we have minimal staffing in the evenings, and the legal fires in the rings also led to increased illegal fires on the open beach along with use of BBQs, which are not permitted,” Watkins added.

Fire rings have been gone since COVID

When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in 2020, the fire rings were removed year-round, according to the staff report.

Watkins said the Harbor Commission recently began discussion about whether they should bring the fire rings back but ultimately was unable to find a way to do that safely.

In September, Cal Fire personnel told the Harbor Commission that “there is continued concern about fires during peak fire season,” particularly in the vicinity of the brush-covered hillside above Olde Port Beach.

Cal Fire also noted its firefighters had been called to respond when visitors “dumped hot ashes directly on the hillside,” according to the staff report.

Meanwhile, at the last board meeting in April, the district discussed the cost impacts of bringing back the fire rings.

According to Watkins, providing security and enforcement for the fire program could cost anywhere between $30,000 and $150,000, while maintenance and disposal would cost an additional $20,000.

“The total additional cost of $50,000 or more is likely more than we could collect from permit fees for fire ring users,” Watkins said, “and taking it out of the current budget means prioritizing this use over another current program.”

For now, it looks like the program is dead.

“We have limited resources and a long list of unmet needs,” Watkins said, noting her office is working to respond to any questions and concerns about the program being discontinued. “So there is no easy answer either way.’