OCEAN CITY — Ocean City’s beach bonfire program spiked significantly last year largely because of the new lifestyle inspired by the pandemic, but its popularity isn’t expected to wane much with some return to normalcy this summer
Ocean City Fire Marshal Josh Bunting this week presented an overview of his department’s fiscal year 2022 budget, including a review of the popular beach bonfire program. The beach bonfire program began in the 1970s and has steadily gained popularity over the years. From a low of just 68 beach bonfire permits in 2010, the number grew to 251 by 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 first year, with online ease of use featuring text reminders on set up and extinguishing directions, the number of beach bonfire permits jumped to 479 and spiked again to 727 in 2019. Last year, with the pandemic restrictions in place all summer, the beach bonfire program increased exponentially with 2,400 permits issued during the 2020 calendar year. The large increase is potentially impressive in light of Budget Manager Jennie Knapp pointing out this week no beach bonfires were allowed last April, May and much of June because of COVID restrictions.
The pandemic was the driving force behind the one-year leap in bonfire permits last year. With restaurants operating at limited capacities, movie theaters closed for much of the summer, other amusements limited and ongoing concerns about an overly crowded Boardwalk, many residents and visitors opted to enjoy the beach at night with family and friends around a bonfire.
However, the streamlined online permit process was also credited for the increase in recent years. Under the old system, permits were often applied for days or even weeks in advance. With the new online permit process, those seeking to enjoy a bonfire on the beach can apply and pay the fee for a permit on the same day, often just hours in advance. Bunting said this week there were instances when his staffers came across a group enjoying a beach bonfire that evidently didn’t know a permit was required, and in most cases, as along as the group was following the other rules, they could pull out a phone or mobile device and get the required permit on the spot.
“The vast majority are getting the permits,” he said. “The online permit process has really made a difference.”
The permits cost $75 and 2,400 were issued, resulting in $180,000 in gross revenue for the program. However, there are costs associated with the program on the expenditure side with the administration of the permit process and cleanup efforts from the public works department.
Last year, not knowing COVID-19 and other factors were going to cause the bonfire program to blow up the way it did, anticipated revenue for the program was set at $35,000. In the current proposed fiscal year budget, the beach bonfire line item for anticipated revenue is set at $150,000. That number is purposely conservative.
For example, with restrictions eased on restaurants and bars, movie theaters and other amusements this year, it remains uncertain if the beach bonfire program will remain as popular. However, the thinking is people have enjoyed the amenity and have gotten used to the bonfire program.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Bunting. “Because of COVID, people were looking for other things to do during the evening. That might change a little this year with the restrictions being eased.”
Bunting said for the most part, the program has been well received. There have been a handful of complaints about smoke from beachfront property owners and renters when the wind is in a certain direction.
“We’ve seen a substantial increase,” he said. “The negative feedback has been very limited. For the vast majority, it has been a positive experience.”
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 27th Street in the Boardwalk area from May 1 to Sept. 30.
Typically, the permits are issued one per block, but there were often times last year when there were two per block with one at the street end and one at mid-block, according to Bunting.
“There have been nights when we’ve had 80 out there,” he said. “It used to be five or so.”
Council Secretary Tony DeLuca, who is an avid beach bonfire fan, asked if there was any consideration to setting a cap on the number of permits issued in a single day. Ocean City Fire Chief Richie Bowers responded it could come to that if the surge continues.
“That’s a great question,” he said. “We can monitor and evaluate that. We might decide at some point there’s a good limit each night.”
Bunting said his office could request a new position to help administer the program, and to work on the beach checking permits and making sure people were in compliance.