Bonfires at the beach — a tale of two cities

We had a little outing to Los Angeles  just after New Year’s, and we were down there in time for the Christmas tree burn on the beach last Sunday.

Zach Fromson organized the outing, and there were maybe a hundred or so people at the height of things. Zach and his crew had spent the weekend gathering trees; they had gone all over the Southland in a rented truck picking them up, and then they hauled them all to the beach.

When we showed up, we saw a big truck loaded with trees, so of course we walked over to help unload them.  But the guy in the back of the truck looked at me kind of funny and asked, “Are you part of the family?” and I said, “uhhhh … Burning Man?” Then the guy said no, this was a private thing, a family thing, and “the other people are over there.”

The “other people” would be the Burners, of course. But it was a smaller group than you’d think for all of L.A., but although it’s a big, big place,  the Burner community seems to be spread hither thither and yon.

Zach, on the left, organized the LA beach burn

Anyway, we found the right bonfire and then we were talking about Michael Michael and the Cacophony Society’s original Christmas tree burns on Ocean Beach in San Francisco, the Post Yule Pyres as they’re known up north. It was a little like passing on some oral history from a faraway land. “Really,” Zach was saying, “that really happens up there?”

Yes it does, and it’s always a cat-and-mouse game with the police to pull it off. The authorities don’t look kindly on hundreds of folks getting all their dried-out trees together for a bonfire. (Really, though, can you think of a safer place for a burn?? The ocean is about 40 yards away, ferchrissakes.)

Anyway, it was a very different vibe down there at Dockweiller State Beach in the Southland, where there’s plenty of parking and fires, even big Christmas tree bonfires, aren’t seen as a problem. There are fires almost every night at this beach.

Dockweiller Beach is different than what you might think of as a Southern California beach. There are some lifeguard stands, and some palm trees, but generally the area has an industrial feel, with a water treatment plant and a big refinery just across Vista Del Mar, the road that runs along the bluff. It’s kind of like the West Oakland of beaches, all industrial and rough around the edges. No million-dollar homes lining the road,  because the beach is also in  the flight path out of LAX. You put all that together — the treatment plant, the refinery, the flight path —  and you get a beach no one wants to live near.

But it’s a great place for a burn.

Dockweiler Beach isn’t as pretty as some others in Los Angeles, but it was just fine for a bonfire

There were all the trees that Zach and his crew had gathered, and there were fire spinners and fire whippers, and there was wine being passed around, and there was music … and it was all pretty fine.

You kind of wanted to see some zany breaking out, some over-the-top antics, some  activities that pushed the boundaries, but there was no one like Otto around, so it all stayed pretty mild. Which was just fine.

We saw some folks we knew from the DPW, and made some new friends, and we realized again that we’d rather be outside  at a thing like this  than be stuck inside at any kind of club you could name. The night was mild, the air smelled good, and the fire burned bright.

We’re betting this thing is going to get bigger next year.


Candace and Karl Not Karl came from across town to watch the embers fly


Zach was in a pretty good mood as the fires got going


The night was cool but the fire was warm


Sometimes it takes fire to start a fire — in this case, from a fire spinner


And just like that, this tree was done





About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

3 Comments on “Bonfires at the beach — a tale of two cities