Beach Fire Ills, Some Possible Cures

Fasten your seatbelts, here comes our annual editorial about beach bonfires. If you are among those who think it is still the 1970s, when the population was 9,000 and the number of summertime visitors maybe twice that, read no further. However, if you are among the majority, who understand that times have changed and that the pressures on public spaces have increased exponentially, and that the old rules no longer work as intended, we ask that you pay attention to what we have to say.

First, the problems: Popular bay and ocean beaches in both East Hampton Town and Village are too often left embarrassingly messy by the charcoal and log remains of bonfires. This is despite a relatively new law requiring them to be set only in metal containers, 50 feet from the dunes, put out only by water, and so on. The law has proven itself ineffectual; few visitors or even many residents seem to know about it, which is hardly surprising, given the impenetrable fine print on signs put up to inform the public. More proof? Town Marine Patrol and police officers issued 441 citations for improper beach fires in 2016. That is a staggering number, when you realize that the bonfire season is only about 90 days long.

Evidence of the law’s failings is everywhere. Beach Lane in Wainscott was dotted in a half-dozen places by fire remains on the sand when we checked a week ago. Charred wood had been placed in several locations behind a row of snow fence, and another pile of coals had been left dumped by the trash receptacles in the parking lot. We saw the same thing at Atlantic Avenue in Amagansett.

At Georgica Beach one morning this week, we counted three bonfire sites on the sand immediately to the west of the lifeguard stand, including one with its own jagged-stone fire ring, as well as coals and burned logs along the high tide line. It is more or less the same at beaches throughout town, although the situation in downtown Montauk and along Navy Road seems a little bit better this year, thanks perhaps to an increased Marine Patrol presence.

Second, possible solutions: One would be fire-debris receptacles at beaches of the sort seen in state and national parks. It was an oversight for officials to impose the metal-container rule without thinking through what the public was supposed to do with fire remains. Baffled, some people just pour everything into the surf or just leave everything for someone else to deal with.

Another solution, short of banning fires altogether, is to prohibit them within the areas of the beaches most used by swimmers and sunbathers. Off-leash dogs already are prohibited within 300 feet of road ends; it seems obvious that fires should not be allowed in the same zone. Given that officials have failed to make provisions for disposing of fire debris — and that compliance with existing rules is so poor — an exclusion area is a must. This could be easily and quickly imposed.

Failing new rules, town and village employees must be assigned to scour the shoreline on foot each morning between June and September, cleaning up the messes so that not one fragment of charcoal, wood, or other garbage remains.

East Hampton’s beaches are among its greatest charms and one of the main reasons people choose to visit and live here. They must be treated like the treasures they are and that starts with dealing with unsightly and dangerous fire remains.