2010 Jan. 30: CA San Joaquin Valley: Wood burning fires impact the neighbors

RAWSEP’s view is that you should not burn wood, period.
2010 Jan. 30: CA San Joaquin Valley: Wood burning fires impact the neighbors
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GUNNAR H. JENSEN: Wood burning fires impact the neighbors

Posted at 12:00 AM on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010

By Gunnar H. Jensen
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Unwelcome smoky air

This is in response to several letter writers who complained about residential wood-burning restrictions. I am in favor of the wood-burning rules. These rules were put in place by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to protect residents from heart and lung damage that can result from exposure to small particles in wood smoke. Wood burning is restricted only when air quality is forecast to be unhealthy.

My husband and I do not appreciate breathing second-hand smoke from our upwind neighbors’ wood burning. We are retired, at home most days, and never use our fireplace. Here’s how our neighbors’ wood burning impacts us.

Our garage fills with smoke.

Don’t blame all wood fires

Regarding Diane Merrill’s letter Jan. 19, “Unwelcome smoky air,” don’t lay a blanket of blame on all wood-burning residents. Blame those who do not burn cleanly.

On permissive burn days, I heat my home with an EPA-certified compliant noncatalytic combustion system wood burning stove. Properly used, this stove and others like it do not emit visible smoke. The particulate ratings on my stove are well within EPA standards. On allowable winter burn days, my home is much warmer, and I save the cost of heating with gas through PG&E.

I’m frustrated because I’m doing my part to protect our winter Valley air, yet I see copious amounts of smoke billowing from non-environmentally friendly open fireplace chimneys (which, though offering ambience, are inefficient and ineffective at heating anything more than about five or so feet away), and probably outdated, noncompliant or improperly used wood stoves all over town. Because of them, clean wood burners like me are becoming more and more limited in permissive burn days

‘All in this together’

The poor air quality in the Valley is a health risk to all of us. The recent New England Journal of Medicine report and Barbara Anderson’s article Feb. 7 discuss the increased risk of cardiac events in older women due to fine particulate air pollution.

It is important to know that the Women’s Health Initiative only studied post-menopausal women. It is reasonable to extrapolate the findings to people who were not included in the study, but who live in our Valley and breathe our Valley air.

Because we’re all in this together, we all need to minimize our risk factors by not smoking, keeping fit, eating smart and minimizing our contribution to poor air quality. Drive less, keep your car tuned up, don’t burn wood. Finally, our Valley leaders need the vision to balance short-term economics with long-term consequences.

Biggest air quality hurdles yet to come

The Valley’s air was as clean this summer as it’s been in three decades. That’s cause for celebration and also for sounding a cautionary note.

Violations of the federal standards for ozone, a precursor to smog, have fallen by about 50% since 2002. That’s very good news for all of us.

But we’re still the second most polluted air basin in the country. That’s a reminder that we aren’t anywhere near the point at which we can declare victory. The Valley’s air is better than it used to be. That’s not the same thing as saying that it’s good.

Stiffer rules could speed cleanup

Is the Valley air district doing all it can to clean the air? Could it be more aggressive?

Five years ago, when The Fresno Bee published a report exposing government neglect in the fight for clean air, officials at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District said they were doing everything possible.

But judges and lawmakers disagreed. Court decisions and new state laws forced the district to make tougher rules.

Thanks to the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District, this has been the best winter in years. For my family, "best" has meant the fewest number of early morning "wake-ups" caused by sore throats, coughing and difficulty breathing. It has also been the best for being able to actually go outside, hang out in the garage or backyard, all without that searing, burning in the throat and lungs associated with the acrid smell of wood smoke.
In no small part this thanks goes to the district’s enforcers who have patiently, diligently and professionally responded to numerous calls for assistance. These are the men and women whose difficult task it is to talk to, cajole, and eventually cite those residents who believe their right to burn trumps regulation.
The Bee and reporter Mark Grossi also share in this gratitude for the ongoing efforts to educate us all about the complex, and difficult mission to clean up our deadly air.
However, more effort is indicated.
In a Nov. 27 story, Mr. Grossi reported 800 pre-mature deaths in the Valley are blamed on PM 2.5, a constituent ingredient of wood smoke pollution. I believe I know something about those who are dying. I’ll bet those 800 people live (or lived) down wind of smoke emitting chimneys that go unreported, or undetected. (It is nearly impossible for enforcers to "gather evidence" of smoke emitted on foggy days, or at night.) These are areas where more could be done to reduce the ill effects of air pollution.

First, it is imperative to realize that those people who live proximate to chimneys that emit wood smoke are experiencing pollution at a much higher concentration than that detected by air monitoring equipment strategically placed to gather information on "likely," area-wide, ambient air quality.
We no longer allow second-hand cigarette smoke in many venues, but do much less to respond to the dangers of wood smoke imposed on many people just trying to live in their homes.
For those of us living down wind of smoky chimneys, we truly are the "canaries in the coal mine." Why not treat us that way? I propose that, if it is not already, "human experience" ought to be factored into "No Burn Day" determinations. School districts’ accounting of sick days due to respiratory ailments, reported ER visits due to asthma and other respiratory problems, and yes, complaints phoned into the district — all these should be "weighted" in concert with ambient air quality measurements to become part of the determination process.
Enforcers should also be provided improved detection equipment to help them in their efforts to protect us from violations of wood and waste burning.
Investments should be made to augment residential adoption of cleaner heating technologies. Wood burning is expensive, labor intensive and dirty.
Finally, we are not angry with, nor do we dislike our neighbors who burn wood. To the contrary, in every other respect, ours are great neighbors. We even attempted once to coax one upwind neighbor with a six pack of Heineken. We tried to explain that we had spent thousands on new windows, HVAC "hepa" filters and systems to reduce the effects of smoke coming from his chimney.
Nothing. He said he could do nothing because he has the right to heat his home with wood. We’re still hopeful he will one day see we should also have a right to breathe in ours.

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