Last Labor Day weekend, I woke up on Saturday morning to a text at 6:05 a.m.
“Already a line,” my friend Sophia wrote. She sent over a photo of cars waiting on PCH to enter Dockweiler State Beach.
Eleven minutes later, she texted an update. Sophia had done it. She’d secured one of L.A.’s hottest summer commodities: a beach fire pit.
Though there are some public fire pits on Orange County’s beaches and Malibu’s Sycamore Cove Beach, Dockweiler is the only beach in L.A. County that has fire pits for public use.
Many beaches don’t allow bonfires for various reasons, including air quality regulations and local resident complaints about smoke and misuse. Cabrillo Beach, for one, stopped providing fire pits during the pandemic because beach-goers weren’t using them properly. (One recreation assistant at the Cabrillo Beach Bath House told me some people would burn tires and other non-wood materials, and the smoke would permeate nearby neighborhoods.)
That’s why Dockweiler’s 87 fire pits have become so sought after. And the only proper way to enjoy one is to get to the beach early and stake your claim. Though some people online say they’ve managed to pay TaskRabbit “taskers” or high schoolers to snag a pit, Nicole Mooradian, a public information specialist for the County of Los Angeles Department of Beaches and Harbors, which operates Dockweiler Beach, said any company that claims it can reserve a fire pit for you is not operating legally.
Still, the morning race is worthwhile for many. For my friend Sophia Eras, who spent much of her childhood enjoying beach bonfires all over Southern California, spending the whole day on the beach is half the fun.
“I have made a lot of really great memories with friends and family having bonfires on the beach,” Eras said. “And I hope it’s something that we’ll be able to continue to do in L.A. because it feels like there’s not a lot of other places to [have a bonfire] anymore.”
If you’re up for the challenge, here are some of her best tips.
What time should you arrive?
Dockweiler’s parking lots open at 6 a.m. (and parking costs up to $13), but on some summer weekends, you’ll need to arrive even earlier than that.
“If you go on Fourth of July weekend or Labor Day weekend, you have to be there by 5 a.m. to hold down a pit,” Eras said. “People line up down PCH before the park is even open.”
What happens when the lots open?
Once the first people make it inside and park their cars, the beach turns into a mad dash to secure the best spot.
“It is like opening doors at Coachella, like it is crazy,” Eras said.
Though most people who claim a fire pit will guard it all day or leave a few chairs or towels to mark their territory, there are some who take things a bit further. Eras has seen groups try to claim multiple pits by putting caution tape around them.
“I saw one woman walk up to a pit with the caution tape around it and start to take it off and another woman came running over from another pit and was like, ‘Don’t take that off! That’s my fireplace! I put that there!’ and they got into this really big screaming match,” she said. “So for what should be a really chill beach day and a nice peaceful environment, it kind of becomes a little chaotic.”
What should you bring for a day holding down the pit?
Since you’re probably hitting the road before 5 a.m., it’s helpful to pack up the car the night before. Eras likes to bring a tent or umbrella for sun coverage, a cooler of water and drinks, and pre-made sandwiches to make things easy.
“Hopefully you have other friends meeting you at the beach later in the day, and they can kind of supplement whatever you forgot to bring,” she said, “or whatever you’ve already eaten or drank.”
Since the whole point of the endeavor is claiming a fire pit, it’s also worth bringing ingredients for s’mores, hot dogs, hamburgers and the like.
“Prepare like you’re going camping,” Eras advised. “Have a lot of water, sun protection, sunblock, a speaker is a must for music, a portable charger, because your phone will die halfway through the day.”
What do you need for the actual bonfire?
To keep the bonfire going for a while, Eras said it’s worth bringing three to four bundles of firewood, matches or lighter fluid, and anything else you may need to get the fire started.
“For beginners, if you’re not used to camping or making fires, I’d say make your life easier and bring starter fire bricks and lighter fluid,” Eras said.
Aside from that, it can be helpful to bring skewers for cooking hot dogs or s’mores, and a grill grate if you plan on cooking things like burgers that aren’t very stick friendly. Extra sweaters and blankets are also helpful, since the beach gets quite chilly at night.
How do you clean up after your fire?
Whenever your night comes to an end, it’s important to make sure that your fire is fully extinguished and cleaned up. Walk to the ocean and get a bucket of water to put all the embers out, Eras recommends. And never throw your trash into the fire — burning plastic and Styrofoam can release toxic chemicals into the environment.
Leaving the beach cleaner than you found it is a good rule of thumb. Near every fire pit are trash cans designed to hold hot coals.
“Just take care of it,” Eras said. “Think about the people who are going to be using it later and think about the environment.”