Thirteen years ago, after much controversy, the Flagler Beach City Commission banned bonfires on the beach during turtle season. Beverly Beach and Marineland have similar bans. But it was only on Monday that the ban extended to the rest of the county’s beaches–18 miles of shoreline in all–as the County Commission voted 5-0 to approve an ordinance.
Bonfires during turtle-nesting season are disorienting to turtles, sending hatchlings toward the flames or, after the flames have been put out, sending them over embers, where they’d be found dead.
It hadn’t been an issue along county beaches until the middle of last month when the Turtle Patrol alerted County Attorney Al Hadeed that a fledgling group called The Ladies of Flagler was advertising on a bonfire event on its Facebook page. Patrol volunteers had attempted unsuccessfully to dissuade the group from having a bonfire, so they turned to the county.
Hadeed scrambled that weekend to get an emergency order on the books after he, too, failed to dissuade a leading member of the group from having the bonfire. “I want to see it in black and white,” he said the group member told him.
“While we were successful in preventing the scheduled bonfire, it took a significant amount of concentrated effort,” Hadeed wrote in a memo to county commissioners, regarding the emergency order signed on July 15. A footnote in the memo lists 15 people that were contacted or were part of the scramble to get the order in place, including the sheriff, the clerk of court, the county’s emergency management director, the county engineer and the county manager–all contacted over the weekend.
“Not one of the officials we enlisted to assist expressed any contrary views about beach fires being inappropriate during nesting season,” Hadeed said. The bonfire did not take place.
But that left other times vulnerable to beach fires. The ordinance closes that door. The county has long had assertive beach-protection policies dating back to the 1989 ban against beach driving (in contrast with Volusia County, which still allows beach driving), the criminalization of the removal of coquina rock, the use of dune cut-throughs to get to the beach, and other measures pushed by then-County Engineer Don Chinery.
“We have a lot of new people that have moved into the community. They are not aware maybe of the environment, of the importance of sea turtle nesting to the legacy of Flagler County’s beaches,” Hadeed told the commission Monday. “We have reached the stage I think where it helps to codify these so we don’t have to go through the emergency order process.”
If the proposal divided Flagler Beach more than a decade ago, to the point that the city commission at one point voted to place the matter on an election ballot for a referendum (the proposal was rescinded), there was no such divisions when the commission considered it, validating Hadeed’s point: it’s now essentially assumed that bonfires are a bad idea during turtle season.
“Fires will not only interfere with the moms nesting, but when you have a bright fire on the beach or even a flashlight on the beach, a light on the beach, it directs the hatchlings to it,” Lori Ottlein, known as the Turtle Lady and a leader of the Turtle Patrol, said. “It’s just the best thing to do. I mean, who really wants a fire in August, besides that?”
Julie Buffington, another member of the Turtle Patrol, described her interactions with the the group that sought to have the bonfire as quite difficult, with resistance hinging on documented proof that fires were banned. “We really need this for enforcement purposes,” she said. “I have no issues with fires when it’s not nesting season. It’s kind of fun, but not to harm the turtles.”
Deana Cedar, a member of Ladies of Flagler who administers the Facebook page, returned a call after this article initially published. “I’m glad they’re finally doing their jobs,” she said of county officials. She recalled getting contacted by Hadeed, who told her the group could not go ahead with the bonfire. She disputed his authority to single her out without documentation and told him: “You need to make that official.” Cedar said there was too much arbitrariness in the county’s approach, especially since the group had held bonfires before, without objections.
The group had done soto mark its anniversary, and followed fire-safety protocols, returning the next day to ensure that the event hadn’t left a trace. “It’s not like we’re crazy partying fools on the beach doing crazy stuff,” Cedar said. Approving of the ordinance, she said “it needs to be clear for everybody.”
Procedurally, the emergency ban was put in place outside of a public meeting through the existing state of local emergency stemming from previous hurricanes’ impacts on the beach. That’s allowed when states of emergency are in place, with the commission ratifying the order at its next scheduled meeting–as it did on Aug. 7. The county’s fire marshal had prohibited beach bonfires during nesting season, but the prohibition had not been codified.
The ordinance the commissioners approved now codifies that ban between May 1 and Oct. 31 each year. The prohibition applies to bonfires, campfires, “or any other type of fire.” Violations would face civil, code enforcement citations.