Tofino’s municipal council looks to have backed off a controversial beach fire ban proposed last year, but increased restrictions are being considered for this summer’s tourist season including the mandatory use of portable fire pits.
Beach fires under 24 inches in diameter are currently permitted at Mackenzie Beach and Chesterman Beach from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and have long been a hot topic in Tofino, but the issue roared to a peak after last summer’s tourist season leading the town’s council to consider banning them altogether back in September.
That idea was met with an uproar of heated opposition from residents however, so council instead directed district staff to come up with some options around addressing health, environmental and safety concerns related to beach fires so that changes could be made prior to the 2021 summer season.
Those options arrived on council’s desk during a Feb. 1 Committee of the Whole meeting where Tofino’s fire chief and manager of protective services Brent Baker pitched five recommendations that he believes will limit the number of beach fires as well as the amount of garbage left behind and the illegal burning of driftwood. Those recommendations include: shortening the 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. permitted beach fire window, improving signage related to beach fire restrictions, doubling the number of bylaw enforcement officers on patrol, increasing fines for infractions and mandating portable fire pits rather than allowing wood-burning beach fires.
None of the recommendations have officially been adopted, however they were each unanimously endorsed by council during Feb. 9’s regular meeting and staff was directed to investigate each recommendation further with a report expected back on council’s desk in short order.
Baker noted that a survey launched last year asking residents for their thoughts around a seasonal or year-round fire ban saw any type of ban staunchly opposed with residents stating that beach fires are a long standing local tradition.
He suggested that, in order to avoid a ban, portable fire pit appliances should be mandated.
“This option would definitely limit the number of fires as not everyone will be interested in purchasing a portable unit and will have the added bonus of greatly reducing the smoke that is generated,” Baker said.
Coun. Tom Stere expressed support for all five recommendations, but said forcing Tofino’s visitors and residents to bring portable fire pits to the beach with them might be a hard sell.
Baker responded that portable fire pits have become common in recent years, adding that they are “easily accessible” at hardware stores and that many tourists are bringing them already.
“I think from a resident perspective, that’s where we’ll have more pushback, but what’s really important to remember is that we’re not limiting how people can have a campfire on their own private property. We’re simply talking about the areas on public beaches where the sheer number of fires are excessive and the effects from those of smoke, alcohol, garbage noise and everything that goes along with it,” he said.
Coun. Duncan McMaster said he supported making portable fire pits mandatory, but suggested the district must clearly define the type of pits that would be permitted to avoid any potentially detrimental homemade solutions, suggesting someone might take half an oil drum to the beach and call it a fire pit.
“And, because it doesn’t cost any money, it’s just left there to rust and rot,” he cautioned.
Council expressed unanimous support for doubling the town’s evening bylaw enforcement patrol from two members to four.
Baker explained that the town’s bylaw enforcement team is currently resourced to have one bylaw officer and one RCMP Reservist patrolling together during the evening with five public beaches spread out over several kilometres to cover while also handling other priorities like illegal camping and noise complaints.
He said doubling the patrol to two teams of two would provide more consistent coverage while also increasing staff safety. He added that shortening the window of permitted fires to end at 10 p.m. instead of 11 p.m. would allow bylaw staff to complete their patrols and put out any fires before requiring overtime hours at midnight.
“Each night, there are dozens of fires abandoned without being extinguished,” he said. “Bylaw staff spend extra time or overtime extinguishing these fires.”
McMaster expressed support for the 10 p.m. extinguishing time, but suggested the morning’s opening should be pushed back as well, noting fires are currently permitted to be lit at 6 a.m.
“When I walk the beach with my dogs, the only people I see having a fire that early in the morning are people that are camping illegally,” he said.
Council was also unanimously onboard with raising the fines for infractions, which currently range from $50-$200.
“These occurrences are happening every night and sometimes dozens of times a night,” Baker said. “We have the opportunity to increase these fines for bylaw notices significantly, which may act as a greater deterrent and posting the amounts of our signs will increase the overall awareness.”
Coun. Al Anderson asked how many fines are usually dished out, considering so many fires seem to be in breach of local bylaws.
Baker responded that handing out fines at beach fires is a tough task because identification is needed for a fine to be issued and evening fires tend to involve large groups and alcohol, which creates a safety concern for his staff.
“When it comes to something like parking, you are issuing the fine to that vehicle. You don’t have to get identification from anybody…When you are on the beach, the fine is going to an individual so you actually have to take the opportunity to get that individual’s identification and write the notice directly to them…This is an area that can be very tricky,” Baker said, adding that having an RCMP Reservist on the team has facilitated the process.
“People are much more willing to provide their identification to an RCMP officer than they are to a bylaw officer.”
He also noted that the goal is for volunteer compliance, rather than dishing out fines.
“Making people aware of what the potential fines are is, I think, more effective than necessarily writing the ticket itself,” he said.
He added that signage explaining fire restrictions at public and private beach accesses is inconsistent and said an “overhaul” is needed to ensure “clear, concise, consistent and highly visible” messaging.
Coun. Al Anderson suggested any new signs should replace old ones, rather than add to the clutter.
“We have signage about wildlife, we have signage about surfing etiquette, we have a lot of different types of signage,” he said.
“I hope some signs can come down as we put more up. I think when you have a barrage of signs as you go on the beach, they tend to all get ignored.”
Coun. Britt Chalmers said Baker’s recommendations offered a “nice blend” of the public feedback received after last summer, but added the district would need to ensure local accommodation providers are ready to relay information around any new restrictions to their guests.
“Getting the accommodation providers onboard is one of the most important pieces of all this. There’s far more access to the beach through private land than there is through our public accesses,” she said.