By Jennifer Chaussee
SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - As rising temperatures send thousands to Southern California's storied beaches, lawmakers are rushing to make sure a classic rite of summer, the beach bonfire, doesn't burn out before they get there.
Under a new anti-pollution measure adopted last year by regional air quality regulators, fire rings on beaches near houses or in places with poor air quality would have to be removed.
The order by the South Coast Air Quality Management District prompted outrage from across the political spectrum in the coastal state, with Republicans railing that unelected bureaucrats were destroying the California way of life and Democrats complaining that removing the fire rings would eliminate an inexpensive summer ritual important to California's culture.
Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen, a surfer whose district south of Los Angeles includes several beach communities, contends the move to ban bonfires grew out of efforts by wealthy Orange County residents to make the beach near their homes less attractive to party-goers, rather than a genuine concern for the environment.
"This started out as a very simple issue where there was a small group of wealthy home owners and they were trying to keep inlanders off their beach," Allen said. "People who perhaps can't afford multi-million dollar homes."
His bill, which gives the California Coastal Commission authority over fire pits, unanimously passed a state senate committee on Tuesday.
One of the few Republican-backed measures to make it through either house of the Democratic-controlled legislature this session, the bill passed the Assembly in January and will now go to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
"The traditions of the fire rings are very important to Californians," said Doug Swardstrom, a spokesman for Friends of the Fire Rings. "It has become part of our heritage and part of our culture in Southern California."
The Air Quality Management District order said beach bonfires send harmful particulates into the air and should be removed if they are within 700 feet (213 meters) of homes. The agency also said fire pits should be removed from beaches that measure poorly on its air quality index.
"This wood smoke pollution is very toxic and contributes to lung disease, heart disease and premature death," said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director for the American Lung Association, which opposes efforts to save the fire pits. "This undermines the air district's authority to protect public health from this dangerous pollution."
(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Sandra Maler)