By Kery Murakami
Even with the skies overcast and threatening rain, Khang Nguyen, 18, and Joel Juan, 19, kicked back after school at Alki Beach.
"It's just a relaxing way to hang out with friends," Nguyen said of the bonfire crackling in front of them one evening earlier this week.
But Seattle Parks and Recreation might do what even this week's chilly weather couldn't -- douse the long tradition of beach bonfires at Alki and at Golden Gardens.
Park department staff is recommending reducing bonfires at the two beaches this summer and possibly banning them altogether next year.
The park board will hear the recommendation Thursday, and the city plans to run public-service announcements and hand out brochures later this month about the effects of bonfires on global warming.
According to a memo to the park board from the staff released Thursday, "The overall policy question for the Board is whether it is good policy for Seattle Parks to continue public beach fires when the carbon ... emissions produced by thousands of beach fires per year contributes to global warming."
Under the proposal, the department in July would reduce the number of fire rings at Alki from six currently to three and at Golden Gardens from 12 to seven.
Then later this year, the department would consider banning bonfires or requiring fees and permits to reduce the number of bonfires next year.
It's the second time in the past few years the tradition of lounging by a fire at the beach has run up against the environmental ramifications of bonfire smoke.
Parks and Recreation recommended banning the fires in 2004, after a violation notice from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to the city after someone set a couch on fire at Alki Beach. However, 1,200 people signed a petition to save Alki's bonfires, and 100 others signed a petition to save the ones at Golden Garden.
Instead, park staff said the department should do more to regulate what people burn and make sure the fires are out by 11:30 p.m.
"I think people still feel the same way (about preserving bonfires)," said Larry Carpenter, treasurer of the Alki Community Council. "Old-timers see bonfires as a tradition that they did as children and growing up. It's a nostalgia thing."
At Alki on Wednesday night, Linda Garcia, a 56-year- old West Seattle resident, walked her dog and made a slightly rose-colored argument for preserving her beloved bonfires. "It's so windy around here it probably doesn't pollute that much.
"They have to try to take everything away," she said.
Sara Russell, 34, who also was walking her dog, rolled her eyes at the idea of banning bonfires to stave off global warming.
"If they really wanted to do something, they could enforce the no-cruising law, because in the summer you see so many cars cruising around here," she said.
Russell's neighbor, Debbie Nichols, said that last July Fourth, she got up at 5:30 a.m. to grab one of the fire pits. "I wrapped myself in a blanket and sat there all day," Nichols said. "We use the fire pits all year round."
Since the park board last heard the issue, the department assigned more staff to the two sites. The number of fires using illegal materials has dropped by two-thirds, according to the park memo.
The memo also noted that restrictions could cause illegal fires and fights over the limited number of fire pits. Charging fees to use the pits could disproportionately bar youths and low-income people from having bonfires, the report said.
But Mayor Greg Nickels' plan to reduce climate-threatening pollutants "begs the question of whether Seattle Parks is acting responsibly ... to systematically reduce controllable contributions to global warming," the memo said.
"I can certainly understand it. (Global warming) is a legitimate concern," said Robert Drucker, vice president of the Sunset Hill Community Association.
Still, he said of the bonfires at Golden Gardens: "It's a long-standing tradition. I think people would be upset to see it go."
But at Alki, Nguyen said he'd be OK with banning bonfires.
"By all means, I'd rather not have bonfires than have global warming," he said.
As a sliver of silvery sky shrank under the growing clouds, Nguyen played a guitar, and maybe for the last year, the flames licked the salt air.