Compared to the high bar set by other shorelines in California, Ocean Beach fails to fulfill the core expectations of a beach. It's frigid and windswept, and anyone who ventures into the surf is straddling the line between bravery and foolhardiness.
But it is a hell of a site for a bonfire. After eons of life in the trees, our forebears spent additional eons parked around bonfires, waiting for someone to invent beer. And now, on Ocean Beach, you can have both.
Or not. The National Park Service in late May quietly initiated its "Ocean Beach Fire Revised Pilot Program." In a move akin to gifting a teenager a Porsche but only permitting her to drive in the parking lot, the NPS has installed a dozen new fire pits, but insists everyone decamp by 9 p.m. That's an hour earlier than the prior curfew.
"Many people enjoy fires on the beach in the afternoon, twilight, and into early evening," insists Ranger Howard Levitt, an NPS spokesman.
And yet, 9 p.m. seems comically early to start a bonfire, let alone extinguish it. Throughout July, the sun won't set over Ocean Beach until 8:30 p.m. or later; come 9 p.m. it won't even be particularly dark out. The rangers or Park Police officers telling burners to exit will have a very clear view of whomever they're ordering around — and whatever beverage is protruding from that plain brown sack.
You will, naturally, be forbidden from lighting anything on Spare the Air Days, regardless of the hour. And officials will prevent you from tossing pallets, garbage, or furniture atop the fire (cribs and children's beds, coated in some manner of varnish, combust with old Christmas tree-like explosiveness. It is both thrilling and horribly disturbing).
As part of this pilot program, data will be gathered regarding how many beachgoers are bothering to give a moment's thought to the new rules. That data is not yet at Levitt's fingertips — but anecdotal evidence indicates behavior hasn't changed much. One night, SF Weekly is told, hundreds of high school students showed up with reams of homework assignments and nine bottles of lighter fluid. This group was intercepted before the 6-foot wide, 4-foot high pile of papers could be ignited. On other nights, as many as 40 fires have been spotted, despite a prohibition on bonfires outside the 12 pits.
"The success of this program depends upon people taking personal responsibility for themselves," Levitt says.
That's a proposition equal parts noble and dodgy. It has been so ever since the days our forebears swung down from the trees to set the ground ablaze.