2010 Jan. 25: CA San Joaquin Valley: fires in the Valley ignite a healthy debate
It was a recent day, before the rains set in, when the air was cool and crisp. It was a great day to stay at home with the family. I still had a few manufactured firelogs in stock. Someone in my neighborhood already had a fire going. I could see the smoke from their chimney and smell the burning wood as I walked through the neighborhood.
I needed to check the day’s burning status.
There it was on the weather page of The Record, the red bar with black lettering: Wood burning prohibited.
The wood-burning season, as far as the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is concerned, lasts from November through the end of February.
During that period the district, which stretches from San Joaquin County south to Lebec in Kern County, regulates when we can burn in our homes. Agricultural burning falls under different rules.
The program, launched in 2004, aims to improve our air quality by monitoring and limiting residential wood -burning emissions on days of poor air quality.
Basically, we aren’t throwing more dirt in the air on days when the air is already dirty and there isn’t enough wind to blow it away.
Wood smoke contains tiny particulate matter known as PM2.5, tiny specks of dust and soot that are among the region’s most dangerous pollutants, and, according to a study, is 12 times more likely to cause cancer than cigarette smoke.
Failing to meet federal PM2.5 standards results in lost productivity, missed school days and health costs to the tune of about $3.2 billion a year in the San Joaquin Valley.
Of course, those without gas or electricity in their homes are exempt from the wood-burning rules.
In San Joaquin County, we have had 20 no-burn days and 38 notices of violation for the season.
Violators are caught in a couple of ways:
» An air district inspector on patrol sees or smells smoke coming from a chimney during a no-burn day and issues a citation. If you’re wondering how effective the inspectors were given the size of the district: Jamie Holt, chief communications director for the Valley Air District, said that no-burn days occur at various parts of the district so the 50 to 60 inspectors can be dispatched to those areas on no-burn days.
» A neighbor or someone else turns in a suspected violation. And the district’s compliance office checks it out. "We don’t knock on doors or go on private property," Holt said. "The inspectors take notes, come back to our office and then send out a notice of violation."
Fines are $50 for a first-time violation or violators can sit through an at-home wood-burning course. It’s akin to a traffic school for wood burning.
Does the program work?
Anecdotally, people have said they are seeing and feeling a difference when they go outside, Holt said.
I asked environmental reporter Alex Breitler for his take on this program.
The air district says it has seen steady improvement in air quality since wood-burning restrictions were first passed in 2003.
In 2008 – the most recent year for which numbers are available – San Joaquin County residents who burned wood at home released into the air 1.64 tons per day of PM2.5.
In 2005 that number was 1.8 tons per day, according to state data. Two decades ago it was 1.93 tons per day.
Despite the decrease, wood burning still results in more PM2.5 emissions than farming or on-road cars and trucks, although they emit larger amounts of other harmful pollutants.
So in short, following the wood-burning rules can be beneficial to us all.
Contact Donald W. Blount at (209) 546-8251 or firstname.lastname@example.org