email: info (at) themenscircle.com


On a cool, dry night last week, groups of about a dozen men each gathered around cozy bonfires at Ocean Beach.

They stood quietly and did what they do each Wednesday, rain or shine: They talked in confidence about problems, struggles, triumphs.


They talked about life, and they did so around a fire.

"This is really key for us," Brian Burt, 38, said of the fires. "We don't have any specific creed around it, but it's something that men have been doing for thousands of years.

"Obviously, without the fires, we wouldn't be out here," he said.

But soon the flames might be snuffed out for the group, known as the Men's Circle, and for everyone else who wants to build a bonfire at Ocean Beach. Under a rule that could take effect as early as June 1, bonfires would be banned from a half-mile strip of the beach, the last sandy shore in San Francisco where the blazes are legal.

The Men's Circle cleans up its fire sites each week under a strict "leave no trace" policy. Attendees don't drink on the beach, and they burn only clean-smoking wood.

But others aren't as careful. Trash, broken glass and smoldering coals litter the beach after big bonfire nights, and fights among nighttime beachgoers and even assaults on park rangers have become more common.

The National Park Service, which oversees the beach as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, doesn't have enough rangers and staff members to keep the fires under control and the beach cleaned up, said park Superintendent Brian O'Neill.

"We're not a dictatorial agency," O'Neill said. But the park, he said, must be accountable to all its users. "We're failing their expectations."

The proposed ban has angered some bonfire builders, who have volunteered to police the beach themselves and take other steps to keep the fires legal. At the same time, however, Ocean Beach neighbors who say they are tired of dealing with bonfire problems have endorsed the ban.

The Park Service is taking public comments on the proposal until May 31. It will announce a decision on the ban soon after that, spokeswoman Chris Powell said.

The vast majority of the 500-plus comments received thus far have favored something other than an outright ban, so the Park Service is keeping an open mind, said Rudy Evenson, chief of special park uses for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which covers 59 miles of ocean and bay shoreline.

For bonfire partisans, there's just something essential about taking a match to a pile of wood at Ocean Beach, looking out to the Pacific from the edge of the continent.

And it's so San Francisco, the bonfire folks add. The countercultural gathering Burning Man, they point out, began with a 1986 bonfire at Baker Beach, not far from Ocean Beach.

"I'm a fifth-generation San Franciscan, and I feel that this is probably one of the best things about living in San Francisco, in the Bay Area," said Aaron Pava.

Pava, who runs an Internet consulting company, started a Web site two weeks ago -- www.saveoceanbeach.org -- to attract attention to the ban proposal. Since then, he's received more than 600 responses from 151 ZIP codes -- all opposed, he said.

Devotees of Burning Man, the annual weeklong festival of art, partying and chaos now held in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, received a "call to arms" edition of the project's Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletter Thursday soliciting comments against the ban.

"It's San Francisco's great fortune to have the prospect of the great Pacific before it," said Larry Harvey, Burning Man founder and the event's executive director. "To gather 'round the fire speaks of a communal impulse that's nothing but good."

Bonfires also are a part of some religious ceremonies. Reclaiming, a local pagan group, holds beach bonfires to celebrate the winter and summer solstices.

If bonfires are banned at Ocean Beach, group members are ready to protest the decision on First Amendment grounds, said member Susan "Kala" Levin.

The problems related to bonfires, however, are numerous, and park ranger Robert Mitsuyasu and Park Police Sgt. Jeff Quinn have seen them all.

At a park office in the Marin Headlands, Mitsuyasu clicked through dozens of digital photos he's taken of illegal firewood burned at the beach, including pallets full of nails and staples. Workers also have to clean up piles of discarded clothing, food trash and what Quinn called "a telltale sign" of alcohol violations: the red plastic cup.

Drinking is banned at Ocean Beach, but beer cans and liquor bottles are commonplace at bonfire sites, Quinn said. Alcohol leads to fights and can make the beach a dangerous area to patrol, he said.

Enforcing rules at the beach, where 100 fires might be blazing on a warm summer night, takes hours, the officers said. By the time a patrol has ended, new problems already have begun.

Buffy Maguire has dealt with her share of bonfire chaos in 13 years as co-owner of Java Beach Cafe, at Judah and La Playa streets. Drunken revelers urinate on buildings and break into residents' cars as they leave the beach around 3 a.m., she said.

They also vandalize property, she said. In October, someone took two heavy, 8-foot-long wooden benches from the cafe's patio and set them ablaze on the beach.

"We actually saw our benches smoldering the next day," Maguire said. "It was pretty heartbreaking."

Some city residents who exercise or surf regularly at Ocean Beach also are frustrated by the smoke, contaminants and safety hazards that bonfires cause.

"When you come down here on some weekend mornings and the place is just like -- there's been 25 bonfires and beer parties and nobody's cleaned up after themselves," said Nick Gaffney, a resident of the Lower Haight who walks his dog and runs at Ocean Beach. "You go down there, and the place is just atrocious."

Those who love Ocean Beach bonfires, however, are offering to do just about anything to keep the pastime legal.

The Men's Circle has proposed selling clean firewood at the beach. The Park Service has available a stockpile of wood from nonnative trees cut down in the Marin Headlands as part of wildfire-prevention projects.

Others have suggested a permit system, but that would require additional personnel and resources -- something the Park Service doesn't have, Evenson said. One person even suggested that the Park Service offer a bounty for nails and staples picked out of the sand.

The Park Service has been trying to control fires at Ocean Beach since January 2002, when the San Francisco Commission on the Environment asked that the beach be kept tidier, Evenson said. In March 2004, the Park Service restricted fires to the beach area between Lincoln Way and Fulton Street.

A ban against all fires at Ocean Beach, however, isn't the way to go, said Brian Burt of the Men's Circle.

"We understand that there are issues," he said. But when it comes to a bonfire, he said, "there's something sacred about it."


People can submit comments to the National Park Service until May 31 on the proposed bonfire ban at Ocean Beach. To comment:

Call the comment line at (415) 561-4723.

Send an e-mail to
rudy_evenson@nps.gov

Send a letter to:
Attn.: Beach fires
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Building 201, Fort MasonSan Francisco, CA 94123

E-mail Becky Bowman at bbowman@sfchronicle.com.