Chris Epting Is Burning for a Fight

How a mild-mannered Huntington Beach columnist became OC's fiercest critic of a proposed beach fire pit ban

He attended the hearing, expressed his disapproval to the board as a resident, then went into the hallway to take a call. There, he ran into AQMD executive director Barry Wallerstein. Board scientists had reassured Epting during the public-comments section that they had tested the smoke in Huntington Beach and found it harmful. But when Epting asked Wallerstein the same question, the director said no testing had taken place. Meanwhile, Epting claims, AQMD board staffers within earshot were "laughing their heads off and mocking speakers" outside the chambers.

"That mocking [by AQMD board staffers] really stuck with me," he says. "If you can walk away from that and not care, then what are you?

"After that, I thought, 'Okay: game on.'"

The Carey McWilliams of the pits
Dustin Ames
The Carey McWilliams of the pits

Since then, Epting has not only churned out six columns on the controversy, but he has also used his Facebook and Twitter accounts to rally people around the fire pits. And he has turned into the AQMD board's biggest burr—he's had the honor of getting called an "angry gentleman" by board member Dennis Yates and has been told, "Don't question me" by chairman William Burke after Epting told the board its comparison of the smoke emitted from Newport's fire pits to Vietnam battlefields after a "carpet bombing" was offensive.

But the advocacy has worked. After hinting for months it would remove all pits, the AQMD board is expected to offer some sort of compromise during the July 12 meeting, anything from fueling the fire pits with propane gas instead of wood to removing those pits closest to residences. Also complicating matters is that while Newport Beach wants to remove its pits, Huntington Beach is adamantly opposed to anyone touching its more than 500 rings (Newport, by comparison, only has about 60). Residents by the hundreds, Epting included, are expected to attend the meeting. He remains skeptical of any AQMD overtures, though, saying, "Nobody trusts what they're doing—this isn't just me, it's the city, it's consultants, it's everybody.

"They can only do so much right now, but it's not about right now—it's about down the line," Epting adds. "They're not going to let it go. They want to monitor everyone but don't want anyone to monitor them. Too late."

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