OCEAN CITY – Officials this week applauded the fire marshal’s office and its part-time staff for another successful beach bonfire season.
On Tuesday, Fire Marshal Josh Bunting presented the Mayor and Council with an end-of-season report on the town’s beach bonfire program.
While the number of beach bonfires decreased in 2023, so did the number of complaints the fire marshal’s office received.
“It is a great program,” Council Secretary Tony DeLuca said. “Last summer we had many complaints about cleanup, about smoke. This summer there were very, very few …So great job in terms of cleanup and addressing what happened.”
Ocean City’s beach bonfire program began in the 1970s and has continued to grow in popularity over the years. Fueling this growth, Bunting said, was the town’s conversion to an online application process for beach bonfire permits.
“Ultimately, in the summer of 2017 we conducted an RFP and hired a company to develop and work on a website that works similarly to how you would reserve a hotel room …,” he said. “It seems to be working seamlessly.”
Bunting said this change was beneficial to the town, particularly during the COVID pandemic. From 2019 to 2020, the number of bonfire permits jumped from 698 to 2,584. That number would grow to 3,557 in 2021.
“Beach bonfires were one of the few things you could do in this town during the COVID shutdown in March of 2020. We saw a tremendous growth in bonfire use and it’s really set the stage since then …,” he told the council. “Right around that same time, we started bringing on part-time inspection staff.”
Bunting said those part-time inspectors are tasked with ensuring compliance with beach bonfire regulations. He said they also act as ambassadors for the town.
“This is one of the programs we take almost as a tourism offshoot,” he said. “So that’s our attitude.”
As of Tuesday’s report, Bunting said the town had issued 3,245 bonfire permits over the course of 2023, a 5% reduction from 2022. His office also reported 194 unpermitted bonfires, 144 of which were voluntarily extinguished and 50 obtaining permits through the online permitting process.
“That was one of the benchmarks we had with the software developer, was to make sure that if somebody was out there enjoying an event with family, the last thing they need to do is end that event when all they need to do is go on their phone and actually be able to process the permit accordingly,” he said.
Bunting also applauded the work of the town’s bonfire inspectors. Throughout the season, the fire marshal’s office recorded 134 nights where at least one inspector was on the beach, 23 nights where two inspectors were on the beach, and one night where all three inspectors were on the beach.
“On July 4, we put everybody we had out on the beach,” he explained.
Bunting said the 2023 beach bonfire season was an overall success, with the fire marshal’s office receiving few complaints. He said most of the negative feedback pertained to smoke and air quality, residual embers and dark sand, and smoke odor.
“Every year we have a couple of ground-floor unit owners that complain,” he said. “If the wind is blowing out of the east, they’re taking the brunt of that bonfire odor blowing into their units.”
Bunting added that his office also received several citizen recommendations, including requests to create two bonfire-free nights each week, move bonfires to the offseason, and to limit the number of bonfires to one per block. He said the fire marshal’s office also received a request to install ash bins at every street end, but Public Works Director Hal Adkins opposed the idea.
“I personally prefer you not go with any sort of ash can at the head of the street,” he said. “It will become a trash can and then it will become a fire can. And there haven’t been enough issues to justify it.”
Bunting also highlighted the fiscal impacts of the beach bonfire program. To date, the town has collected $166,975 in bonfire revenue in fiscal year 2024. He said that money funds part-time positions, equipment purchases and special programs.
“It does bring in a good deal of revenue,” he said. “But that revenue does help to offset some of the critical programs we have in the fire marshal’s office that would otherwise not get done or at the very least would be hard to fund.”
With the fiscal year 2025 budget process set to begin in the coming weeks, Bunting said he would be requesting the continuation of part-time inspector positions, as well as the purchase of a vehicle.
“These guys are out on the beach in the rain, in thunderstorms, and a lot of times there’s two of them out there,” he said. “So I’d like to be able to put them in a vehicle that is dedicated and ready to go when going out for inspections.”
For their part, council members applauded the beach bonfire program and the reduction in the number of complaints the town received. Bunting attributed the success to the work of bonfire inspectors.
“People will follow the rules so long as there’s someone there telling them they need to,” he said.