Chris Epting is the first person to admit he's an unlikely muckraker. The Huntington Beach resident has published 19 books, almost all on pop culture (he's working on a Def Leppard tome right now), Orange County history or baseball. His column for the Huntington Beach Independent, In the Pipeline, is a well-read weekly take on Surf City's "people and places," as he puts it; recent dispatches have included profiles on a building that once housed a Mexican restaurant, the Seaview Little League and a nonagenarian advocate for alternative energy. The father of two teenagers, he's a quintessential beach dad, down to the good tan; scruffy goatee; and permanent uniform of T-shirt, cap, shades and shorts.
But over the past couple of months, Epting has emerged as the scrappiest journalistic voice against a controversial proposal by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD)—charged with protecting Southern California from air pollution—to remove fire pits in Corona del Mar, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach. Just the mention of the issue transforms the otherwise-easygoing Epting into Lincoln Steffens: He'll begin to decry career politicians and NIMBYers, will rattle off scientific studies that debunk claims that the smoke from the pits is hazardous to the public health, and posts videos and letters that expose the agency's frequently bumbling ways. His efforts have helped turn what was supposed to be a quiet ban into a national story that's coming to a head at the July 12 AQMD board meeting at its Diamond Bar headquarters.
For Epting and the fire pits' defenders, this isn't an issue solely about smoke emitted from the pits, a favorite of Orange County life since at least the 1940s. It gets to the heart to the county's sense of self.
"Huntington's sister city in Japan just sent over some school kids for a summer visit—the first thing they're going to do is a bonfire," Epting says. "Just the other day, I passed by a fire pit with a family of over 100—name tags, everything—that was inviting everyone to get some food. This is what [the AQMD and fire pit opponents] want to take away?"
Skirmishes in OC's beach communities between the haves and everyone else pop up regularly, whether it's Dana Point trying to limit beach access in its ritzier neighborhoods or former Newport Beach council member Dick Nichols memorably complaining to a reporter last decade that too many Mexicans hogged up the grass at Corona del Mar State Beach. But the thought of pulling the fire pits completely has shocked and angered almost all of Orange County, uniting rich and poor, liberal and conservative, coastal and inland residents against the efforts. Politicians ranging from Santa Ana Mayor (and AQMD board member) Miguel Pulido and State Senator Travis Allen have rallied their constituents. Even residents on ultra-exclusive Bay Island off the Balboa Peninsula have made their opinion known—one mansion has erected signs proclaiming, "SAVE THE PITS."
Despite Epting's protestations to the contrary, he's the perfect warrior for the cause: a convert. The New York native and his family moved to Huntington Beach from Sherman Oaks in 1999 and immediately fell in love with the pits—in a June Independent column, Epting printed a picture of his then-4-year-old daughter roasting a hot dog there. "It blew my mind away the community that took over once the sun went down," he says. "Each fire ring has its own culture, yet they all get along—it's the great equalizer. It was an activity that was clean and about going there to forget your troubles for a night."
The few requests over the years at Newport Beach and Huntington Beach city council meetings to remove the pits were dismissed as the ramblings of cranks. But in November, residents with the Breakers Drive Homeowner's Association (homeowners overlooking Big Corona, where most of the community's fire pits sit) wrote en masse to the Newport Beach City Council in November to ban them, citing everything from cancer-stricken relatives to, as one couple put it, "young adults trying to leap over the roaring bonfires as a passage of manhood." When that didn't work, a group of Corona del Mar residents went to the AQMD, finding a much-more receptive audience that vowed immediate action.
Epting scoffs at the stance of fire-pit opponents. "It's like going into a sushi bar and complaining about the fish," he says, blaming them for creating an issue where there was never one. "It's everyone's worst nightmare about the Newport Beach attitude, and while they can say they're not elitist, look at the results."
But he didn't even know about the movement until a friend noticed an item on the agenda for an AQMD meeting. "I did something this week I haven't done in ages," Epting admitted in his first column on the matter, published in late March. "I signed a petition. For a variety of reasons, it's normally not something I do, but when I heard that there was a movement to remove all fire rings from Southern California beaches, I could not resist."
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?
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"After that, I thought, 'Okay: game on.'"
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."