Vancouver fire pits ignite controversy

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      Back in the day, Ambleside Park in West Vancouver was the place for a good time. The broad beach, facing west for dazzling sunsets, allowed for campfires in a few designated pits. For nature-deprived city dwellers, an evening of sausage, s’mores, and song was just a jump across the inlet from downtown.

      No more. About 10 years ago, the West Vancouver Fire Department—which had built the pits in the first place—destroyed them, according to Martin Ernst, a division chief with the fire department.

      “They were too popular,” he told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “Too much of the community came down to the beach,” and the noise, garbage, and a few out-of-control fires convinced the officers to extinguish the fun. Ernst recalls that, after the pits were destroyed, some citizens accused the department of “sterilizing” the beach.

      But changing the rules didn’t douse the flames. Every summer night, Ernst said, the fire department is called out to illegal campfires along the beaches and in back yards, with an average of more than 200 calls per season.

      West Vancouverites aren’t the only criminally flame-happy folk. In fact, across Metro Vancouver’s myriad open-fire regulations, it seems no strategy has been able to dampen urbanites’ desire for fire. In Vancouver, where there’s an outright prohibition on open fires, there were 230 calls to light-ups in back yards, parks, and beaches last year, according to Gabe Roder, a Vancouver Fire Department captain.

      Still, the situation is no worse in fire-friendly Delta, which offers community fire pits on Centennial Beach. Those pits, Delta deputy fire chief Paul Scholfield told the Straight, tend to attract responsible folks, and the department hasn’t had any problems with them.

      In the summer, Scholfield said, there are still illegal fires daily. But those are largely set by teens who want to drink along isolated stretches of the shore, he noted. If the fire pits were removed, he added, it probably wouldn’t stop community members from lighting up. It would just turn them into criminals.

      Clearly there’s a region-wide desire for fires. So should other municipalities follow Delta’s flames?

      In Vancouver, park board commissioner Loretta Woodcock thinks urban campfires might help solve a problem: nature deficit. This fall, the park board is creating a new strategic plan that may focus on helping urban kids connect with wilderness, she explained. Beyond looking at bugs and trees, Woodcock said, open fires could be a key to that connection.

      “Through nature, children learn empathy, they learn who they are,” the COPE commissioner told the Straight. “There’s not enough of that in an urban environment [such as Yaletown]”¦.Maybe we should have a fire pit somewhere in the city where kids can go and roast marshmallows.”

      But Vision Vancouver board vice-chair Sarah Blyth said urban fires are likely a no-go. So far, she said, no one has asked for it. And the cigarette-smoking ban in parks, she said, got “overwhelming support”. Vancouverites don’t want air pollution, additional noise, and garbage on beaches, she told the Straight.

      West Vancouver’s Ernst, too, said the risks from urban fires outweigh the benefits.

      “If you’ve ever had to look into the eyes of a homeowner whose house is threatened by a bushfire gone wrong, you wouldn’t be too worried about sterilization”¦.or, a child walking on the beach the next morning who walks over still-hot coals from the night before.”

      Indeed, Vancouver deputy fire chief Les Sziklai believes that if open fires become legal, we’ll see more runaway fires in the city. But he also pointed out that the department offers fire permits for charitable events ($20) and other organizations ($100). A private party, though, he said, probably wouldn’t get a permit to burn in this city. Unpermitted burns will get you a fine of between $50 and $2,000, according to Vancouver fire bylaws.

      Here’s what you can legally do in Vancouver. You can make a wood fire in an enclosed grill that’s specifically designed for cooking, and you can enjoy that fire for as long as it takes to cook your food. Then, the fire needs to go out. Roasting marshmallows on sticks, according to Sziklai, does not count as cooking food. Or, you can bring a contained barbecue—briquette or propane—with you to the beach.

      You can also build a barbecue in your back yard, or an oven such as a tandoor, and use wood to cook. Sziklai said that this arrangement is open to abuse, as the only real difference between a contained-but-illegal fire and a legal cooking fire is whether there’s a grill over the flames.

      “We can’t regulate every single thing,” he said. ”We can’t police every single person.”

      Alas, municipal governments can certainly try.

      Urbanites who are willing to travel can ignite in fire pits at Centennial Beach (Boundary Bay), Deas Island (Richmond), Tynehead Park (Surrey), Belcarra, Derby Reach and Brae Island (Langley), Matsqui Trail (Abbotsford), Aldergrove Lake, and Campbell Valley (South Langley, near the border).




      Jun 20, 2010 at 2:02pm

      I can't believe what I just read. There is not 1 mention of the fact that wood burning of any type from a fireplace, fire pit or forest fire all produce toxic emissions and is a severe health hazard.

      What’s in Wood Smoke? Like cigarette smoke, wood smoke contains hundreds of dangerous air pollutants & gases such as: Particulate Matter 2.5, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons), VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) dioxins, furans, benzene, lead, cadmium, arsenic, and many other harmful substances.

      Particulate Matter 2.5 is extremely harmful because it can not be filtered by the nose and
      gets into the lungs of people making people sick and killing some.

      Why would anyone encourage such a nasty form of Air Pollution?


      Jun 20, 2010 at 2:15pm

      How healthy is wood smoke?
      The health hazards of wood smoke are:

      -lung and other cancers
      -other serious health problems
      such as: blood clots, heart attacks,
      and strokes.
      -lung disease like asthma,
      emphysema, pneumonia, and
      -irritation of the lungs, throat, sinuses
      and eyes;
      -allergic reactions;
      -increased hospital admissions and
      even premature death.


      Jun 20, 2010 at 2:31pm

      Deputy Fire Chief Les Sziklai is wrong with on his interpretation of Vancouver Fire By-law 2000 * Wood burning appliances are not allowed. (Example: chimneas, fire pits).

      A person must not light or maintain a fire using any combustible material in the open air or in any outdoor area without first obtaining a permit from the Fire Chief.

      Wood falls into that category. From my experience with dealing with the Vancouver Fire Department, most of the firefighters are not aware of what the Open Air Fires Bylaw really states.

      I have had this clarified by the Vancouver Fire Chief and Fire Inspectors.

      Vic Steblin

      Jun 20, 2010 at 4:23pm

      Who needs a fire anymore, except for the leftover cavepeoples? Is it the winter woodburners getting a smoke fix? Let the friggin wood rot already, and go for a hike in clean air if there's any left!

      Nathalie Doiron

      Jun 20, 2010 at 5:21pm

      I cannot believe that this article does not mention the toxicity of burning wood. Here in Montréal, it is illegal to have outdoor burning. Thankfully, as I have severe asthma. We need to put more in the forefront people’s health as opposed to a supposed « right to burn ».

      Shirley Brandie

      Jun 20, 2010 at 7:38pm

      It appears that there are some people fixated on burning. How sad that they either don't know or don't want to accept the fact that they are polluting the air we all breathe. People like this need to be regulated because they are never going to stop burning unless forced to.
      Why allow those with a psychological issue to foul the air for everyone? Ban the stupid burning and give us all the right to breathe clean air.


      Jun 20, 2010 at 9:52pm

      I guess the above comments are a testament to another general thing that adds to this city's no-fun vibe.

      Small fires on a beach used to be a pastime, and the community policed itself. In many well-to-do communities, they still are, but here it's one of those things that must be stamped out before real or imaginary property values decline due to real or imagined threats.

      Really starting to think that this city is beyond hope.

      Vicki Morell

      Jun 20, 2010 at 11:09pm

      Ever since our early ancestors gathered around their first fire,
      humans have been responsible for releasing fine particulates into the air.
      Only recently have scientists discovered the bad news: fine
      particulates are so small that they can easily be inhaled into the deepest reaches of our lungs, causing serious lung
      and heart disease throughout the world. We just didn't know it.
      But times have changed. What was once considered a
      harmless practice now is recognized as a major source of air pollution.

      All wood burning is a grave health hazard and major contributor to global warming. Bans and nuisance bylaws need to be put in place to protect the residents of Metro Vancouver from the health hazards, pollution, nuisance and interruption to normal daily life from all residential wood burning smoke and odour both indoor and outdoor from all wood burning appliances.

      Please see

      Brie - Wood Smoke Victim

      Jun 20, 2010 at 11:56pm

      I pray that Vancouver park board commissioner Loretta Woodcock will have a change of heart and of mind; and let the kids connect with nature (wilderness) without an open fire. Burning wood! Roasting marshmallows can be done, quite successfully, over a gas-fire. No need to build fire-pits all over the Metro area and add to air pollution.

      Municipalities who, at present, are allowing any type of outdoor burning may soon refrain from doing so. Much attention is directed to the harm wood-smoke is doing to our environment and human health. The UBC has conducted extensive studies on the health hazards of wood smoke. And many communities are focusing on ”˜going green’ and are aiming to reduce toxins in the atmosphere. Encouraging the use of wood fueled fire-pits, will be counterproductive!

      Giulia D'Alesio

      Jun 21, 2010 at 6:38am

      Reference to:
      Through nature, children learn empathy, they learn who they are,” the COPE commissioner told the Straight. “There’s not enough of that in an urban environment [such as Yaletown]”¦.Maybe we should have a fire pit somewhere in the city where kids can go and roast marshmallows.

      Why does children need to build a fire to gather or go to, and roast marshmallows?...maybe they are cave children?

      How about a park where kids can go for activities without the toxic wood smoke?

      Kids playing with matches or fire does not make me feel all so safe nor having a fire pit in the the city or else where.

      Children can enjoy nature and/by looking at the stars with a blanket around them to keep warm without a fire, and they still can enjoy their marshmallows. Most important the children will learn to protect, and respect lives, and our environment by not burning wood.

      P.S. We do not live in the cave days!