LAGUNA BEACH – — Kjersten Oylear saw the couple set firewood and a folding chair next to the fire ring.
Then she saw them leave.
So she waited. And after 30 minutes had passed, and the couple were still not around, Oylear sprang into action.
“We had Cub Scouts coming down for the bonfire, so I moved their stuff to the side,” the Ladera Ranch mother of three said, at sunset, on a recent Friday.
“It was not the best moment of my life,” she added as she cozied up to the flames rising from a pit at Aliso Beach.
“But, you know, I felt like I had to do it for the boys.”
Claiming a fire pit in Orange County can be hectic. You have to arrive early, stay all day and, in rare cases, spar verbally or physically to keep a spot.
All for an iconic, tranquil evening on the sand.
If you’re not familiar with the written and unwritten rules beach bonfires, you might be surprised at what people will do to nab a pit.
But if you’re an aficionado, you know there are some crafty ways to hold your spot, what day is best to avoid the crowds, where the most and best pits are, and the foods that cook up well over open flame.
SUPPLY, DEMAND, S’MORES
Like real estate and dating and hot dog prices, fire pits are influenced by the vagaries of supply and demand.
In winter, when nighttime beach weather can turn chilly, a few local fire pits sometimes go unused. But in summer, when heat and tourism are both up, that doesn’t happen.
“From Memorial Day to Labor Day, there’s no such thing as a night that these fire rings aren’t completely taken,” said Kevin Pearsall, a public safety superintendent for California state parks in Orange County.
Pearsall knows first-hand what that can look like. He spent five years patrolling fire rings on state beaches, and he’s seen grown-ups brawl to secure a spot for, yes, quality time with the kids.
A key rule, he noted, is the one violated by the couple Oylear squeezed out — never leave the fire ring.
“You have enough stuff there, you are there, (but) we prefer a body,” he said. “People will move the stuff. Then it becomes a confrontation. Sometimes it’s physical.”
Pearsall said he urges people to share the rings, with two or more groups sitting near the flame, but sometimes they won’t.
Those rings, by the way, are in short supply. Orange County beaches have been shrinking and, as the sand goes, so do the fire rings.
The one ring at Riviera Beach in San Clemente State Beach, for example, is gone. Same story at San Onofre, where only five of a dozen fire rings survived pounding waves that caused the sand to crumble. At the south side of Doheny State Beach, the ring count has dropped from 33 to 14; San Clemente City Beach has eight pits this year, about half the number of previous years.
In the early 2000s, there were more than 500 pits at Huntington State Beach. Now, there are 237.
“You have people fighting over a scarce resource,” said Brent Jacobsen, battalion chief for the Newport Beach Marine Safety Dept.
“There can be arguments.”
In summer months, if you haven’t claimed a spot by 10 a.m., even on weekdays, chances are you aren’t getting one. For Memorial Day weekend or Fourth of July, some people snag spots as early as 4 a.m., Pearsall said.
Ted Evans might be one of those people. The San Clemente computer consultant is the “pit guy” for his crew; he orchestrates fire ring parties a least once a month.
On a recent Friday he showed up at Aliso Beach at 6 a.m. to “squat down” near a fire ring. He brought his laptop and spent his day working on the sand.
He also brought bundles of wood, chairs and tables, and set two particularly big chunks of wood on chairs that he propped up around the pit.
“If you want to move my stuff,” he said, “you’re going to have to work.”
Then he got strategic. He made friends with some of the other people hunkered down at nearby rings. They look out for each other when one needs to use a restroom or briefly leave.
“Can you do me a solid and watch my stuff?” he’ll ask, returning the favor if they need to do the same.
But a seasoned pit guy like Evans knows there are no guarantees. Last summer, on a Saturday, he turned up at 5:30 a.m., minutes after some guy snagged the last empty pit.
“I sat and waited. He starts to get in his car. I said ‘Where you going? It’s Saturday. I have a big group. If you leave, that’s mine’,” he said, retelling the story in true campfire fashion.
He points to the words written on the side of the pit itself:
“Must be present to hold.”
“That’s enforced right now,” he told the man. “Normally, I’m a really nice guy. But we have a big group and I need that pit. So I’m going to make you stay.”
The man called his son to guard the pit, and Evans had to find a spot at a different beach for his group.
WHY THEY DO IT
Once you get a fire ring, it’s all about the quality time spent with friends and loved ones.
“I feel like the beach is a great place for all ages to connect,” said Jamie Beaudry of Mission Viejo.
And do weird things with fire — and eat junk.
Aidan Collette, 8, says he likes to put a stick in a fire and light the tip so it looks like a torch.
Meanwhile, Jackson Oylear, also 8, says he’s got a spectacular and previously secret recipe for s’smores. It involves a Reese’s peanut butter cup smashed into the middle of a marshmallow sandwich.
He agreed to share this only if a reporter vowed to name it the “Jackson S’more.”
“Don‘t steal it,” he pleaded.
Others see time around a fire pit, on a beach, on a summer night, as the quintessentially Orange County experience.
Reem Alkuwaiz, 26, and her older sister Latifa, 30, brought visitors from Saudia Arabia down to the sand. They all sipped Arabic coffee and ate a sweet date dessert and some gooey-but-crunchy baklava.
“We come to enjoy the lifestyle here,” Reem Alkuwaiz said.
The sisters have shown up about once a month for the past five years. But on a recent Friday, they were dismayed to find all the pits taken. So they set up some rocks and started their own fire.
“We never tried this before,” she said.
The sisters didn’t know makeshift fires on the sand aren’t allowed, and lifeguards warn that doing so can be dangerous.
“One (fire rule) we heavily regulate, there’s no digging in the sand, whatsoever,” said San Clemente Marine Safety Supervisor Kyle White.
Even if embers are extinguished with water or covered with sand, people can walk over it hours later and burn their feet, White warned.
However, at some beaches, including San Clemente City Beach, people can bring their own portable pits as long as they sit off the sand.
Another rule at all O.C. fire rings: You can’t burn treated wood or pallets, or anything with nails.
There’s also a question of what you can burn.
In some parts of Newport Beach, years of legal wrangling involving residents, the Coastal Commission and city officials have led to seemingly arcane restrictions on what can be put inside the pit.
For example: Rings on the east side of Balboa Pier can use wood, but rings on the west side of the parking lot are charcoal-only. And at Corona del Mar State Beach, you can burn wood in the rings closest to the ocean, but only charcoal in the rings closest to the grass, near the palm trees.
Oh, there’s another rule:
Hunginton Beach Marine Safety Lt. Claude Panis warns beachgoers against sneaking booze in their plastic cups.
“It’s real obvious,” he said. “If we see a red cup, it’s just like a red flag.”
“The cops are out in full force,” he added. “We don’t want people drinking on the beach and going in the water.”
There is one final fire pit rule:
“You go down there on a Sunday morning, there’s diapers, bottles, trash,” said Brent Jacobsen, Battalion Chief for the Newport Beach Marine Safety Dept.
“It’s like a bomb went off, when there’s trashcans right there.”
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org