Can we save Huntington Beach’s fabled Bonfires from Bureaucrat Pinheads and Newport NIMBYs?


A dim memory of a long-lost past?   When they pry it out of our cold dead hands, maybe!

Enough already!  Enough of a few, spoiled, rich, well-connected Newport Beach residents – and no it’s not everyone in Newport, or even most of you, I know it’s just a few troublemakers – interfering with the lives of the rest of us in this County!

  • I mean, just this past couple months, there’s, first, THIS: 

Unsatisfied with the crazy steep ascent they already make us take leaving John Wayne Airport to spare their beachfront homes our noise, now they’re trying to get the FAA to add two new sharp turns to that (as described in this opinion piece pithily entitled “If Airport Noise Disturbs You, Don’t Live Near an Airport.”)

  • And then, as you probably know, there’s also THIS: 

All of Southern California is now in serious danger of losing the right to enjoy bonfires on the beach – including in neighboring Huntington where NOBODY has complained – just because a few wealthy Newport beachdwellers don’t like the smoke in what they consider to be their front yards, and probably more to the point don’t like us poor people tramping through what they consider their front yards.

But, Huntington is not Newport, in so many ways…

For one thing we Huntington folks have got 1994’s Measure C,  spearheaded by Debbie Cook, Connie Boardman and others, which forbade building on beaches or parks without a public vote.  That’s why we don’t have spoiled rich people living right on our beach, complaining about bonfires.  (This is also the reason you can drive down PCH from Warner to Brookhurst and SEE THE OCEAN, unlike in most of the rest of the County.)

We also have dramatically different Councils:  While Newport’s all-Republican Council quickly danced to the tune of the wealthy homeowners who had elected them, OUR majority-Democratic, majority-environmentalist Council (elected in large part due to the work of the late lamented Gus Ayer) strongly defends its fire pits.  And, not to get all partisan on y’all, let’s give our three Republicans their due – Harper, Carchio and Sullivan – our Council is unanimous!  (As well they should be, given the economic impact gelding our beach would cause.)

Finally, how serious of a health or environmental threat could the bonfires be when they’re defended by longtime champions of the environment like Connie Boardman, Joe Shaw, and Jill Hardy?

This Bonfire Ban is Class Warfare!

This is more of the same old class warfare we see every day, of the wealthy against the rest of us.  (Us 99%.)  An afternoon and evening on the beach with a bonfire is a pleasure within the reach of any Southland family, SO much cheaper than a trip to Disneyland (which, as my colleague Cynthia Ward points out, gets an exemption from the AQMD for their much-more-polluting nightly fireworks.) And a sliver of the privileged elites are trying to take that away from all of us, on the thinnest of pretexts.

And this affects much more than Huntington, much more than Orange County!  Anyone who’s been down to the beach on the weekend know that it draws people of all races and economic conditions, from Los Angeles, from the 909, whites, Latinos, blacks, Asians, everybody.  It is a great egalitarian commons that must be defended.

Well, still… How Did This Happen?

How did we make the quantum leap from a few Newporters complaining about their own beach (which as far as I’m concerned they can do what they want with) to banning the fire pits EVERYWHERE?  We’re still trying to figure out exactly how that jump happened.  Back in August, when very few of us were paying attention, the NIMBYs went to the Coastal Commission, which told them to pound sand.

But as the resourceful elitists know full well, when you don’t get your way with one bureaucratic agency, there are plenty more to choose from, so next they tried the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) where they had MUCH better luck!

Bill Burke

The AQMD is chaired by powerful, doddering William “Bill” Burke, who took up the Newporters’ cause with a vengeance, telling a reporter – before any hearings or studies had even be held – that he was “100% sure” all bonfires would be banned.  Until just recently, Burke also served on the Coastal Commission, a gig he appears to have got in return for favors to the corrupt former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez.

Having risen to fame and fortune as LA Marathon boss, Burke is equal parts vindictive buffoon and way past his prime.  The charitable explanation to our question above is that he was so moved by speaking with a Newporter diagnosed with emphysema that he immediately declared jihad on ALL beach bonfires within his purview, but who knows what else could be involved?

Chris Epting, the popular local historian/journalist, TV personality, and author of 19 books, has been on this case like white on sand, and has been reveling in his newfound role as activist and gadfly.  (Cynthia asked me yesterday, “Why do we historians keep turning into activists?”  I suggested, “Well, maybe you’ve got enough perspective to see how much more fucked-up things are getting?”  And that answer seemed to satisfy her.)

That’s enough setup for a fun video break.  First this famous one of Burke bizarrely comparing aerial views of Newport’s fire pits to his memories of carpet bombing in Vietnam, followed by Epting’s objections, and the ensuing melee:


Here’s another one of Chris confronting Burke and a couple other Board members at a lunch break, after being told contradictory things by other Board members.  This is shortly after a meeting at which Burke asked every single pro-fire-ring speaker “how they would like propane,” and then misrepresented their confused reactions as “unanimous support” for his ridiculous idea of replacing wood-burning bonfires with propane tanks:


Where are we now?  Recent developments…

A week or two ago, at Chris’ urging, Assemblyman Allan Mansoor and Senator Mimi Walters complained to the Attorney General about the conflict of Burke’s serving on two different Boards, AQMD and the Coastal Commission.  Kudos to Allan and Mimi for standing up for the interests of the County’s people rather than a few of their wealthiest constituents.

The result was a little confusing – after protesting angrily that there was “no conflict,” and that he WOULDN’T resign, Burke then did resign – but from the Coastal Commission, and he did so in a letter mysteriously pre-dating Mansoor’s and Walters’ complaint.  It’s also improper for him to leave the Coastal Commission rather than the board he’s served on the longest, the AQMD, and probably signals his digging in his heels on this particular fight.

But aside from chairman Burke and his loyal Vice-Chair Dennis Yates (former Chino Mayor), there are eleven other members on the Governing Board, including our own trusty Supervisor Shawn Nelson and the ubiquitous Santa Ana Mayor-for-life Miguel Pulido – eleven members who hopefully won’t want to accompany Burke on his draconian crusade.  As we head toward a final June 7 decision, let’s focus on THEM in our postcards and phone calls.  (More info on this blog soon…)

And now, shameless self-promotion!

THIS SUNDAY, April 28, from 4-6 pm, at the Huntington Beach Central Library, I’ll be doing the GREATEST PIANO CONCERT IN HISTORY – the “Concert to Save Huntington Beach’s Bonfires,” and I hope you can all come.  During the intermission, both Chris Epting and HB Mayor Connie Boardman will be talking about this issue, and about our plans going forward.  I’ll have some great guest musicians, and afterward we’ll all head over to Assemblyman Travis Allen’s “bonfire to save the bonfires,” at PCH and Newland across from the electrical plant.  The program:

  • Prokoviev’s Wild Sonata #7
  • Led Zeppelin’s Rain Song
  • Francois Poulenc’s beautiful Sonata for Flute and Piano (With Mary Palchak)
  • (intermission – Chris Epting and Mayor Boardman speak)
  • Johnny Cash – Ring of Fire singalong with Jared
  • Chopin – Ballade #1 in G minor
  • by request – my version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah mixed with the Hallelujah Chorus
  • Pink Floyd – Echoes (1971)
  • The Doors – Light My Fire (with everybody)


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official political troubadour of Anaheim and most other OC towns. Regularly makes solo performances, sometimes with his savage-jazz band The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.