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Fires at Portsmouth beach to continue despite chiefs’ concerns

Council sets limit of 3 fires per night in designated areas at McCorrie Point Beach

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The longstanding tradition of allowing campfires at McCorrie Point Beach was upheld by the Town Council Monday night, despite recommendations by both the police and fire chiefs to ban them outright due to safety concerns.

The council did, however, place a limit on the number of fires allowed. Under a motion made by council member Keith Hamilton, the Department of Public Works will designate three areas on the beach for fires, and the fire department will issue no more than three burning permits each night. 

The motion included an amendment made by Council Vice President Linda Ujifusa to contact the town’s municipal insurance company to clarify the town’s liability and insurance issues regarding campfires.

The council voted 6-1 in favor of allowing the fires to continue, with Daniela Abbott opposed.

“We don’t allow fires on any other (town) property; I don’t know why we’d treat this any differently,” said Ms. Abbott, adding the council should follow the recommendation of its fire and police chiefs. She said the fires “put an undue burden on Portsmouth taxpayers” due to all the instances when police are called to the beach for complaints about fires, noise and other issues.

“In one month’s time, (police have) been down there 244 times,” said Town Administrator Richard Rainer, Jr. 

Fire Chief Paul Ford said while he personally liked the idea of having a small beach campfire, he was concerned about safety, adding he was surprised there hasn’t already been an incident of a small child stepping on hot embers in the sand.

“Personally, I like the idea, but professionally … we’d likely to be in a better position if we don’t permit them down there,” he said.

Police Chief Brian Peters agreed, saying fires “have been causing problems down at McCorrie Point.” In the past month, he said, police have cited three people for unauthorized fires, Chief Peters said. Two were from Portsmouth, and all three were cited and are due in Municipal Court next month, he said. 

“It does put a burden on the police department,” he said.

Wesley Echols, who lives on Wampanoag Drive, said the council should listen to their chiefs. He contacted surrounding communities and all but Little Compton ban fires on town beaches, Mr. Echols said.

“I don’t understand why McCorrie Point gets treated so differently than any other town property,” he said. The fires, he said, invite drinking and other “after-hour activities down there,” and there’s always debris left behind. “You should do the right thing and vote no fires for the benefit of everybody in Portsmouth,” he said.“It’s a lot bigger problem than some people realize.”

The motion allowing the fires to continue included language requiring residents to clean up debris afterwards, or risk being denied a future permit. However, both Chief Peters and Chief Ford said that will be difficult to enforce.

Dissenting opinions

Sal Carceller, a Lepes Road resident, spoke against banning the campfires, saying it was unfair for a few neighbors who keep calling police dictate whether fires are allowed or not. 

“You don’t have 20 fires down there,” Mr. Carceller said. “How many of the 240 calls are coming from the same residences?”

He also took issue with statements by Ms. Abbott and others that McCorrie Point is the only town-owned property where fires are allowed, pointing out they’re also permitted at Melville Campgrounds.

In a written comment to the council, Jane Roggero, who lives on William Street close to the beach, said residents have been having injury-free fires at the Point for 30 years. Debris is monitored by residents and cleaned up as needed, she said.

Emily Copeland, who lives on Windstone Drive off McCorrie Lane, said the town should simply punish the people who are breaking the rules. “Don’t take away a simple pleasure that is available to all Portsmouth residents. I think it can be managed,” she said.

Other council members said they didn’t want to snuff out a practice that’s been enjoyed by residents for decades. 

“This is a unique piece of property and there’s a lot of history down there,” said Council President Kevin Aguiar.

Mr. Hamilton said he rarely disagreed with the police and fire chiefs, but he felt any safety concerns would be satisfied by limiting the number of fires permitted each night. 

Calling police more than 200 times in one month is “abusive,” said Mr. Hamilton, adding only a “handful of residents” are complaining about the fires.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.