By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - It may be January, but Southern California beach-goers could be forgiven for breaking out the marshmallows early, as lawmakers moved to protect a classic rite of summer - the seaside bonfire.
Under a new anti-pollution measure adopted last year by regulators in charge of air quality for Los Angeles and Orange Counties, fire rings on beaches near houses or in places where air quality was low would have to be removed.
The measure prompted outrage from across the political spectrum in the coastal state, with Republicans railing that unelected bureaucrats were destroying the California way of life.
Likewise, some Democrats complained that removing the fire rings would eliminate an inexpensive and beloved summer ritual for people who can't afford to live in expensive beachfront communities.
Freshman Republican assemblyman Travis Allen, a surfer whose district south of Los Angeles includes several beach communities, took on the issue as one of his first efforts.
His bill, which gives the California Coastal Commission authority over fire pits, passed on Monday in the state Assembly on a vote of 64-0.
One of the few Republican-backed measures to make it through either house of the Democratic-controlled legislature this session, the bill will now go to the state senate, where supporters say they also expect it to pass.
"Everybody loves a beach bonfire," Allen said in an interview at his Capitol office. "It's a safe, fun activity."
Last July, the South Coast Air Quality Management District ruled that beach bonfires send harmful particulates into the air and should be removed if they are within 700 feet of homes.
The agency also said that the pits should be removed from beaches that measure poorly on its air quality index.
"One fire pit in the evening emits as much fine particulate pollution as one big-rig diesel truck driven 564 miles," the agency said in a report announcing the new rules.
But Allen contends the move to ban some bonfires grew out of efforts by wealthy residents in Newport Beach to make the beach near their homes less attractive to party-goers, rather than a genuine concern for the environment.
"This is a beach access issue, masquerading as an air pollution issue," Allen said.
In California, state law is clear that the beaches are public property, and lawmakers tend to err on the side of protecting the rights of all residents to go enjoy the coastline, he said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)