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).