Burning Issues


Calif. Air Proposal Targets Fireplaces
The Associated Press
Dec 9 2002 8:12AM

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) - Residents of California's agricultural heartland for years have blamed their thick layer of smog on exhaust from cars and trucks in the San Francisco Bay area. Now, air regulators are proposing a solution that hits much closer to home: a ban on traditional wood-burning fireplaces.

Many in the state's Central Valley are incensed.

``With our energy costs going through the roof, you have to keep the house warm with a supplemental fire,'' says Doug Vagim, 59, a Fresno resident and former state Air Resources Board member who opposes the ban.

Under proposed rules that would take effect next year, most wood-burning fireplaces and stoves would be banned in new homes. Masonry fireplaces would have to be permanently disabled, converted to natural gas or upgraded to expensive soot-containing models before homes could be sold.

Also, on bad air days during the winter, many Central Californians would be prohibited from lighting up their existing wood-burning stoves and fireplaces in a concerted effort to get the smoggy valley to comply with the Clean Air Act.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District's plan, drafted under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency, provoked angry reactions at a series of public hearings.

``I have a problem with you telling me I can't light my fireplace,'' Bakersfield resident Pat White said. ``You're telling me what I can and can't do in my home. That's not fair.''

But state officials say they have few alternatives.

Air regulators have tried for years to promote a voluntary no-burn program on days when weather patterns prevent the valley's skies from clearing. ``It hasn't been quite successful,'' said Janis Parker, a district spokeswoman.

The valley consistently has failed to meet the federal standard for small particle pollution, and burning wood accounts for 30 percent of the problem, releasing particles one-seventh the size of the width of a human hair that can lodge in lungs, triggering headaches, allergies and asthma.

The district, which covers 23,000 square miles from Lodi to Bakersfield, is expected to approve the proposal by next April. About 500,000 homes have stoves or fireplaces subject to the ban.

Nationwide, only traffic-congested Los Angeles has dirtier air than the San Joaquin Valley. Hemmed in by the 14,000-foot high Sierra Nevada and two other mountain ranges, the valley's bowl-like topography traps pollution blown in from the Bay area.

The district had considered a wood-burning ban a decade ago, but the ``air board has never really had the political backbone to pass some of the most needed regulations,'' said Kevin Hall, a local Sierra Club member.

Still, residents say they should have the right to burn.

``The lifestyles of the folks in this valley don't have to be impacted by a Nazi-type era upon us to keeping us from burning in our homes,'' Vagim said.

Under the proposal, air regulators would notify homeowners through the media, its Web site or a hot line to stop burning on bad air days, which could amount to between five and 20 days each winter.

The district may set up a phone line people could use to report any illegal burnings, and violators could be fined.

The proposed rule would exclude homes that rely solely on wood for heat, houses above 3,000 feet and buildings where no natural gas or propane service is available. Gas-burning devices also are exempt.

Meeting the new requirements could be costly for homeowners. Gas stoves can cost from $1,500 to $3,000, not including installation, and converting traditional brick fireplaces to natural gas can cost thousands of dollars. The pollution-controlling inserts can cost between $2,200 and $3,400.

The costs are a real blow to many homeowners, who depend on wood to save energy costs, said Dawn Keeton, who co-owns a wood-burning stove business in Fresno County, where unemployment is as high as 30 percent in places.

``I know we are all attracted to the ambiance, but I believe for most of us, it's a necessity,'' Keeton said.

Denver imposed a similar ban on non-federally certified fireplaces or wood stoves and is one of several cities with a no-burn rule in the winter. Initially, air officials there found it difficult for homeowners to stop sparking fires on chilly nights, but compliance increased as the city began issuing fines of up to $300.

Many bought gas stoves - and realized how convenient they are, said Christopher Dann, a Colorado Air Pollution Control Division spokesman. ``Anytime they want, they can have a fire,'' he said.

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San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District:


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