OCEAN CITY — Ocean City’s beach bonfire program spiked significantly this year, enhancing the visitor experience while creating some worthwhile enforcement and clean-up headaches.
Because of the ongoing COVID pandemic and the friendly online permit process, the number of beach bonfires jumped from 727 last year to nearly 2,400 this year, representing a 230% increase, according to Ocean City Fire Marshal Josh Bunting. From a low of just 68 beach bonfire permits in 2010, the number grew incrementally for years, reaching 231 in 2016. In 2017, the Fire Marshal’s Office explored the possibility of replacing the cumbersome paper application process with an online version and it was fully implemented in 2018. In that year, the number of beach bonfire permits jumped to 479 and spiked again to 727 in 2019. With an unseasonably warm fall thus far, the number continues to grow. There were 25 more last Saturday and as of mid-week, there were a dozen more permitted for this weekend.
Naturally, COVID concerns are driving the spike somewhat this year, but Bunting credited the streamlined online permit process for the increase in recent years.
“For a long time, the largely paper applications had to be submitted two weeks in advance in order to be processed,” said Bunting. “The paper process was very cumbersome and it began to overwhelm the staff, so in the interest of good customer service, we decided we needed to go to an online application process.”
Those seeking a permit can apply via their cell phone and the turnaround is practically real-time with text confirmation capabilities. The online permit costs $75 and during the summer, the bonfires are allowed from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., with the clean-up expected by midnight. From Oct. 1 through March 31, the bonfires are permitted from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. with the same clean-up time expected. No bonfires are allowed south of 30th Street in the Boardwalk area from May 1 to Sept. 30.
“The regulations have remained pretty much unchanged over the years,” said Bunting. “The fires have to be at least 75 feet from the dune line, but the fee hasn’t changed for as long as I can remember. On many nights this summer, we had permitted bonfires often two per block for as far as the eye can see.”
Bunting said despite nearly 2,400 permitted bonfires thus far this year, his office has received about a dozen complaints. The majority of the complaints have stemmed from the amount of smoke that often reaches beachfront condos and hotel rooms, especially on an east wind. Other complaints have focused on the debris left on the beach.
Bunting said the majority of those who obtain permits do the right thing and extinguish the fires and properly dispose of the debris in a timely fashion, but there are times when a group will leave the remains of the fire on the beach, requiring additional work for his office and the public works department.
“We rely on the beach patrol to help with enforcement early in the evening when crews are still out on the beach,” he said. “We do have fire marshals out on the beach, but we don’t have the staff to be out there checking everyone every night. We used to have 10 or 15 a night, but now we have 50 to 60 on most nights. We were a little lucky this year because we had a handful of interns that helped monitor the program.”
Bunting said the biggest impact is on the public works department, which is charged with keeping the beach in pristine condition each night. He said the public works department’s beach cleaning equipment heads out around 10 p.m. each night and works throughout the night to restore the beach to its pristine condition throughout the night.
With no beach bonfires allowed below 30th Street, the beach cleaners can focus their attention on the south end before heading north where most of the bonfires are permitted. However, those efforts are challenged by the growing bonfire program. For example, the heavy equipment operators are instructed to steer clear of ongoing beach bonfires and the groups that surround them. As a result, crews often double back early the next morning to hit those areas where the fires took place and less-than-conscientious groups did not follow the clean-up guidelines.
“I like the bonfires,” said Public Works Maintenance Manager Tom Dy. “It does have some impact on our ability to clean the beach. Our guys are instructed to work around them, but if we could have some more enforcement on the midnight stop time, it would be helpful. We do have some concerns about damage to our equipment, but it has been minimal thus far.”
There is a cost associated with the ever-increasing beach bonfire program. However, with nearly 2,400 permitted fire this year at $75 a pop, the program is at the very least cost-neutral and even generates revenue. Mayor Rick Meehan said the benefits in terms of enhancing the resident and visitor experience offsets any potential costs and concerns.
“I think it’s terrific,” he said. “It’s kind of a throwback to a different era. With the way people get notices via text about when it’s okay to start and when it’s time to wrap it up, along with notices about potential weather impacts, it’s a great program. With COVID, it’s another outdoor, family-friendly activity for our families to enjoy.”
Council Secretary Tony DeLuca agreed.
“I love this program for a bunch of reasons,” he said. “I like the revenue it generates, but I really like the amenity it provides. Our family often has a bonfire on the beach at 48th Street and it’s just a great program.”
Councilman Peter Buas, who was sitting in on his first official work session this week, said he hoped the program wasn’t bogged down by enforcement and clean-up concerns.
“It’s a tremendous activity for the town,” he said. “Is there a ceiling on this or is there room for this program to grow? It’s a tremendous program and I would hate to see it curtailed by some of these other concerns.”
Bunting said there was room for the program to grow to an extent and he would work with the other departments on solutions to some of the concerns.
“Whatever direction the Mayor and Council want to go, we will make sure the risks are balanced with the benefits,” he said. “I expect we’ll see an even greater increase next year.”
Meehan said any revenue benefit was incidental to the added amenity for residents and visitors.
“I never looked at this as a money-maker,” he said. “I look at it as another family-friendly activity on the beach that enhances the Ocean City experience. We can work through some of these other issues.”