Q: I’m going to be down on Mustang Island, south of Port Aransas, for a long weekend with my girlfriend and two other couples later this summer, and I’m looking forward to entertaining them with a bonfire on the beach one night. However, I have no idea about laws or rules with regard to fires on Texas beaches. Can I even have a fire on the beach in Texas?
Tom Whitley, Amarillo
A: It warms the cockleshells of the Texanist’s heart to hear that you are heeding the advice found on the enticing cover of the recent “Return to the Coast” issue of Texas Monthly and are, yourself, heading back to the beach. And among the 367 total miles of coastline with which Texas is blessed, you are wise to take advantage of the beautiful 18-mile white-sand stretch that Mustang Island comprises. Named for the wild mustangs that once roamed there, Mustang Island is one of Texas’s most impressive barrier islands, which is saying something, considering our bounty of barrier islands. Padre Island, just south of Mustang Island, is, in case you didn’t know it, the world’s longest such island and contains the world’s longest bit of undeveloped beach, which can be enjoyed via the Padre Island National Seashore. Padre is a great option too. If you haven’t been before, keep it in mind for next time.
The Texanist, although a natural-born Central Texan, has been a regular goer to the Texas beach since first toddling along the Lone Star seashore in the late sixties. And he still loves getting down there as often as possible, no matter the season. The activities with which one can pass time along the coast are endless. To name just a few, there’s wading, swimming, surfing, paddling, fishing, bird-watching, beachcombing (always with an eye peeled for the elusive and prized Lightning Whelk, the state’s official shell), as well as Texas-style beach-driving. Speaking personally, the Texanist likes to take advantage of the even simpler pleasures: getting sand between his toes (with a beer between his fingers), listening to the crashing surf, and just soaking in that restorative briny breeze.
Many of the above-mentioned activities can be enjoyed in tandem, but the latter three, the simple ones, go together particularly well, especially when partaken in around a crackling beach fire. Needless to say, the Texanist approves of your plan. But you didn’t come to the Texanist for his personal stamp of approval; you came to the Texanist so that he would tell you that no law enforcement officers will give your plan the dreaded stamp of legal disapproval. The Texanist hates that stamp.
With regard to fires on the beach, there are rules, some written and some unwritten, so it’s good that you’ve made this inquiry. The written rules can vary slightly from location to location, and you’ll want to check with the local authorities, beginning with the fire department. But along most of Mustang Island, from Port Aransas at the northern tip down to Packery Channel down at the southern end, the official rules demand that:
1. Fires be kept to a modest three-feet by three-feet by three-feet.
2. Only suitable firewood can to be used. No pallets. No construction debris.
3. Fires must be extinguished and mess must be cleaned up when the fun ends. Whatever you pack out, pack in.
The unwritten rules, while unwritten, are unwritten in stone. These rules are not constrained by any particular physical boundaries; they are universal and go as follows:
1. Construct your fire in a hole of one-and-a-half to two feet in depth, which will protect you from wind and makes for easy cleanup/burial.
2. Set up chairs and blankets upwind of the fire, which will prevent you from getting smoked out.
3. Enhance the experience with music of your choosing, excluding, of course, Jimmy Buffett. The Texanist is partial to classic country, classic rock, classic surf rock, and classic Joe King Carrasco.
4. Use skewers made out of wire coat hangers, preferably unpainted, to roast wienies for gritty hot dogs and to roast marshmallows for gritty s’mores.
5. Do not pee into the fire.
6. Resist the urge to toss empty beer cans into the coal bed to see if they will melt. They will. And it’s kind of cool, but not really that cool.
7. For the safety of others, keep your inner pyromaniac restrained.
8. Have fun.
As the Texanist said, it’s always a good idea to check with local authorities, especially during the summer months, when most of Texas will be hot, dry, and under a mandatory ban on outdoor burning. (Yes, the Texanist asked, and, ridiculous as it may seem, bans on outdoor burning carry over to beach blazes—even modest three-foot by three-foot by three-foot ones.) FYI, Nueces County, where you are heading, is currently under just such a ban, although the area got a pretty good soaking recently, so that is likely to change. Keep your fingers crossed.
If you follow these rules, bring along just the right group of friends, and leave all your medium-sized city worries behind, then the Texanist can guarantee that there’s one thing you’ll be taking back to Amarillo with you: sand. Lots of sand. Lots and lots of sand. It’ll be everywhere.
Wait, the Texanist didn’t mean to say sand. (Though there will be sand.) The Texanist meant to say memories. Lots of memories. Lots and lots of memories. Memories of the good times you had sitting around the beach pyre, sharing fellowship with friends on a beautiful summer night along the Texas coast. You won’t forget the sand, but it’ll be the memories of the good times that will really stick. Though not in the exact same places the sand will stick. Have fun!
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.