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Sonoma County leads in 'spare the air' complaints

Patrick Oster of Buck Pools and Spas in Santa Rosa is reflected in the glass front of a gas fireplace, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013.

KENT PORTER/Press Democrat
Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 6:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 at 8:20 a.m.

Sonoma County apparently is the biggest wood-burning air polluter in the Bay Area during no-burn days, and this year the regional air quality police are cracking down more than ever.

Facts

SPARE THE AIR DAYS

• Illegal to burn wood, firelogs, pellets or other solid fuels in fireplace, woodstove, outdoor fire pit or other wood-burning device.

• Fires for cooking are not prohibited, but air pollution district recommends use of gas and propane barbecues instead of wood- or charcoal-fired cooking devices.

• Exemption if wood burning is only source of heat for home or commercial building

• Spare the air day alerts available on The Press Democrat's weather page in the air quality category, by calling 1-877-4NO-BURN and at sparetheair.org.

Last year, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District received 409 wood-burning complaints from Sonoma County neighborhoods. Inspection patrols, many stemming from such complaints, resulted in the issuing of 110 wood-burning citations, the most of any county in the nine-county district, officials said.

Across the Bay Area district, there were 3,777 complaints and 346 violations, with most violators receiving a warning letter. But this winter, the district is no longer issuing warnings. Instead, first-time violators will be given the option of paying a $100 fine or taking a smoke awareness course online or by mail.

The district, which covers most of Sonoma County, except for north of Windsor and west of Sebastopol, issued a Spare the Air alert for today, the fourth consecutive wood-burning ban and the seventh since the Spare the Air season started Nov. 1.

The season, which lasts until Feb. 28, is an effort to reduce air pollution during winter months, when the skies over southern Sonoma County can become unhealthy. Of the nine counties in the Bay Area air district, the skies over Sonoma County are among the most heavily polluted during winter.

But the district's heavy hand has some fireplace and wood-burning stove vendors crying foul because their modern, EPA-certified products are extremely efficient and clean.

"I understand the restrictions on wood burning, but the industry is very clean now," said Pete Orrfelt, store manager of Malm Fireplace Center in Santa Rosa. "A modern wood stove emits an average of up to about 3.5 grams of particulate matter per hour. The maximum allowable by the EPA is 8.5 grams per hour."

Orrfelt said the district and the media have "villainized" wood burning and made no distinction between old and new technologies.

While newer stoves and fireplaces do burn more efficiently, many of the Bay Area's 1.4 million fireplaces and wood stoves are older, less-efficient models, said Aaron Richardson, a spokesman for the air quality agency.

"Based on our emissions analysis, wood burning is responsible for 30 percent of the fine-particle pollution in the wintertime in the Bay Area," Richardson said.

Spare the Air alerts often are called during such weather conditions as the current high-pressure system sitting over much of the Bay Area, which creates a temperature inversion that forms an atmospheric layer trapping pollutants.

Richardson said the district has about 70 inspectors, though not all are assigned to "wood burning patrol." They review complaints made by the public and zero in on areas that receive a lot of complaints.

During the next Spare the Air alert, inspectors will go into these areas and look for violations. The violations must be observed and documented before inspectors issue a ticket, Richardson said.

"In many cases, they'll take a photograph," he said. "They're not standing up on a hill looking down."

Sebastopol, Petaluma and parts of Santa Rosa receive the most complaints in Sonoma County, Richardson said. Exact numbers were not available for these areas Friday.

Air quality agencies have split the county into two districts, with two different sets of rules.

For residents in northern Sonoma County, who live within in the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District, there are no Spare the Air bans prohibiting the use of wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.

That district, which includes all of the Sonoma Coast, most of the Russian River Valley and everything north of Windsor, is a larger region with a smaller population and, consequently, less pollution, said Barbara Lee, the district's air pollution control officer.

The northern Sonoma County district has issued a no-burn alert for outdoor burning today, but indoor heating using solid fuel is allowed, Lee said.

"In the northern part of the county, the air quality meets all of the health-based standards set by the federal and state governments," she said.

Spare the Air-type alerts are also foreign to Lake County, where air quality also meets state and federal standards, said Sarah Nave, air quality engineer for the Lake County Air Quality Management District.

To date, the Bay Area air district has called Spare the Air alerts this season on Jan. 1, 2 and 8, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

With the program now several years old, the days of warning letters have passed.

"The program has been around for four years, and we want people to know about the hazards of wood smoke," said Richardson, the district spokesman.

Jim Lerum, owner of Beaver Enterprises Chimney Services in Sebastopol, said he has "immense compassion" for those who are adversely affected by air pollution. But he said modern wood-burning technology should be exempt from no-burn days.

"My stoves burn only 1.1 grams per hour," he said. "I don't understand why the (district) includes the clean-burning and EPA-approved stoves in their ban. They are not part of the problem, they are part of the solution."

Patrick Oster, owner of Buck Stoves, Pools & Spas in Santa Rosa, said gas stoves and fireplaces are an option for those who live in suburban areas of Sonoma County, where natural gas distribution is available.

But like Lerum, Oster pointed out that new wood-burning products are not the same "dirty" products they used to be decades ago.

"We consider what we have a clean-burning product," Oster said. "We're carbon neutral."

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