OCEAN CITY – With gas prices rising and the cost of just about everything else going up, the resort’s beach bonfire program is exceeding expectations heading into the holiday weekend and beyond.
It’s no secret the cost of a vacation in Ocean City has gone up, just as it has everywhere else. From nearly $5 per gallon for gas and rising prices at accommodations and restaurants, families are still coming to the resort, but many are taking advantage of the relatively inexpensive beach bonfire program to fill the vacation experience gap.
The beach bonfire program began in the 1970s and has steadily grown in popularity over the years. From a low of just 68 beach bonfire permits in 2010, the program really took a leap forward in 2017 when the fire marshal’s office streamlined the permit process with an online version. With the cumbersome paper application process at city hall replaced with a real-time online application, one seeking to get a permit can now literally file and get approved from their phone on a beach chair.
The beach bonfire program really spiked during the pandemic with restaurants closed or offering limited hours and resident and visitor concerned about large gatherings in tight spaces. In the first year of the new online permit process, the number of permit requests jumped to 479 in 2018 and 727 in 2019.
When COVID broke out in 2020, the number of permits increased exponentially to 2,400. Last year in 2021, there were over 3,000 permits issued for the beach bonfire program. During this spring’s budget deliberations, there was a brief discussion about raising the permit fee from the current $75 to $85, but the council, perhaps wisely, ultimately agreed to keep the fee at $75.
Now, with gas prices rising and the cost of a summer vacation at the resort rising, the bonfire program is thriving more than ever. An extended family or a group of friends can get a permit and hold a beach bonfire for far less than a dinner out or a trip to other amenities. The numbers bear it out. On Saturday, for example, there have already been 53 permits issued and on Sunday, July 3, 64 permits had been issued as of late Thursday, representing nearly every block from the end of the Boardwalk at 27th Street where the program begins to the Delaware line.
The list goes on and on over the next several weeks with dozens of beach bonfire permits already applied for and approved. Fire Marshal Josh Bunting said this week the program is thriving as expected for a variety of reasons. Bunting said the revenue generated by the program has allowed his office to increase outreach and enforcement for the program.
“The bonfire program continues to provide great family-friendly entertainment for our residents and visitors with only limited complaints or issues,” he said. “The increased volume and related revenue has provided funding for increased nightly inspection staff, who drive the beach and monitor the required equipment, safety, location and promote the proper cleanup and disposal of bonfire debris to ensure the program remains a success.”
There were over 3,000 permits issued in 2021 and the revenue from the beach bonfire program last year was $192,000. In fiscal year 2023, the anticipated revenue from the program was budgeted at a modest $195,000, but with everything else going on, it appears the program will exceed those expectations. Bunting said aside from the fiscal aspects, the program is providing an opportunity for the city and his department to positively interact with residents and visitors.
“It’s also a tremendous public outreach opportunity for the fire department,” he said. “Our inspectors thoroughly enjoy interacting with beach patrons and get a front-row seat to families making memories that will hopefully last for generations.”
There are a few downsides to the program, however. While most comply with the regulations and extinguish the fires and dispose of the remnants along with cans, bottles or other trash associated with a bonfire event, some leave the mess behind them. Public Works Director Hal Adkins agreed the program appears to be thriving this year.
“We’ve seen a drastic increase in bonfires for the last few years,” he said. “It appears to be happening again this year.”
Adkins said his department is charged with ensuring the beach in clean and clear of debris at the end of the day so beachgoers the next day can enjoy a pristine, white sand experience free of debris.
“I clearly realize a bonfire is a family-friendly event,” he said. “I only hope and ask that the permittee complies with the regulations and cleans up after their event so those who choose to enjoy the beach the next day can do so safely.”
Adkins said there have been occasions when less than observant bonfire permit holders have created problems for his department.
“The permit holder needs to properly extinguish the remnants of the bonfire in accordance with the fire marshal regulations,” he said. “We have unfortunately had occasions when they have placed the smoldering remnants in a beach trash can and the can burned up, or once we dump the can, our large collection vehicle catches on fire.”