Susan Sward

The Conversation: Danger in magical wood fires

Published: Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Are air quality districts going too far by imposing no-burn days and bans on wood-burning fireplaces in new construction? Add your comment below. To write a letter, go to

About this time of year, as the holidays and cold weather press in upon us, I invariably think of my father, pine cones and fireplaces.

Throughout my childhood, Father had a way of turning chores into adventures. Help him hang laundry on the clothesline. Ride with him from our Santa Monica home to a Topanga Canyon ranch to pick up chicken manure for our compost pit. Stand on a chair beside him to dry the dishes he washed.

My pine cone-gathering memory is perhaps the strongest of these recollections, and I find it cropping up in my mind as I watch state and local regulators focus their attention more and more on the pollution stemming from fireplace fires.

The various bans and limits started some years ago. Bothered by this development, I recently spoke with several air quality districts around the state and found the trend toward restrictions is growing: More cities are adopting rules limiting burning. Fines in some areas are increasing. More "no-burn days" are being imposed when winter weather conditions trap wood smoke near the ground.

When the regulators moved to fight air pollution by placing limits on how people could use their own fireplaces, they were invading a realm that gave me great happiness – especially when I took the time to gaze into the fireplace, stare at the flickering flames and transport myself into some sort of meditative trance. I focused on fires and firewood so much that I once tried unsuccessfully, at age 10, to make money in a wood kindling business by attempting to sell neighbors thin pieces of bark from our cajeput tree. Another time my two sisters and I earned money by helping Father haul wood home that a neighbor had given him.

Our most regular venture was accompanying Father to gather pine cones felled by rainstorms or dry Santa Ana winds on a street one block away. After filling bags with cones, we headed for home, happy with our supplies ensuring fabulous fires.

Taking a global view of regulation for a moment, I acknowledge that I am far removed from those who believe government has no business imposing rules about how people live in their own homes. In fact, I approve of rules designed to tackle health and safety hazards in the home.

In the case of fireplace restrictions, however, I balked. All my life I had loved wood fires so much that when I came home from camping trips, I would bury my nose in my clothes for one last whiff of campfire smoke. Feeling this way, I initially decided that some regulators had gone too far when they banned new construction of open-hearth fires and approved of gas-fueled fireplaces with fake logs. It was this sentiment that prompted me to contact and question air quality officials as they began imposing this season's no-burn days.

Typically, air quality authorities call for no-burn days during the months from November through February when they say wood smoke is the greatest contributor to localized air pollution. State Air Resources Board officials say that limits on fireplace fires, permitting them only in homes with no alternative to heating, have achieved dramatic reductions in public exposure. That reduction, officials say, has meant reduced cases of bronchitis, asthma and cardiovascular problems.

Fireplace smoke is typically concentrated in neighborhoods, and in winter months when the air is calm all that smoke stays close to the ground. ARB officials say that while one fire may not be much, when whole blocks of homes are burning wood in fireplaces, smoke can drive up particulate-matter concentrations rapidly.

"Smoke may smell good, but it's not good for you," says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Wood smoke can affect everyone, but children under 18, older adults, people with diabetes, asthma or other lung diseases are most vulnerable."

The amount of wood smoke is enormous: In the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, wood smoke produces 4.67 tons per day of PM 2.5 pollution (particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller – one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair); that is about 26 times the PM 2.5 pollution from the region's electric utilities.

Stressing the need for regulation, the ARB says as much as 70 percent of chimney smoke can find its way back into the home or into neighbors' houses.

"The more we find out about the small particles in smoke, the more dangerous they appear to be," said ARB spokesman Dimitri Stanich. "The particles exacerbate cardiopulmonary disease and are difficult for people with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)."

Several years ago, Stanich said, he bought a home that had a gas-fueled unit in the fireplace without real logs. He said: "I had grown up with a wood-burning fireplace and I enjoyed it, but over the years I have come to really like this unit. It warms the room more effectively, and it looks and acts like any other fire."

In my childhood home, I lobbied to have wood fireplace fires year-round. Decades later, I can still hear Mother telling me: "Honey, you're the only one I know who loves a fire in August."

That is still true. When my two sons were young, we went to Stinson Beach in the summer. As soon as we unpacked, the boys and I would walk to the edge of Bolinas Lagoon and collect driftwood for fires we would have every evening.

When I ask myself why this freedom to burn wood has meant so much to me, I conclude more is involved than my love for Father, who died 32 years ago: For me, building a fire is a Zen-like task, similar to washing a car, that produces within me extraordinary peace. In many ways, life has turned out to be more full of sorrow than I anticipated, and in such a world I value my fireplace-fed sense of calm.

Today, accepting the data behind the government limits on fireplace burning, I can endorse and obey these rules. I cannot help but be sad, though, that wood smoke has turned out to be one of the fiercest demons in the world of pollution.


Here are observations from agencies regulating air quality in California

Christina Ragsdale, spokeswoman for the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, said its "no-burn" day mandatory program is in its sixth year and has achieved a 3.5-ton reduction in tiny particulate pollution (PM 2.5) on no-burn days. Since 2007, the district has banned open-hearth wood-burning fireplaces in new construction, remodeling and outdoor landscaping. Most first-time violators opt to take a smoke awareness class rather than pay a $50 fine "and we are thrilled by that – we want people to understand the rule is important because of public health."

Armen Kamian, associate planner for the Butte County Air Quality Management District, said the county has had a Check Before You Light voluntary program since 2007. It alerts the public about upcoming poor air-quality days and asks residents not to use wood-burning fireplaces or stoves on those days. Last year the city of Chico adopted a mandatory no-burn program banning wood-burning fires in fireplaces and stoves whenever the county forecasts a poor air-quality day. "When it's cold, there's no air movement and people fire up fireplaces in the evening. That's when we run into problems."

Janelle Schneider, spokeswoman for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, said the agency is in its 10th year of a no-burn program and has had a limit since 2003 on wood-burning fireplaces in new construction. Currently first-time violators may take a smoke awareness class or pay a $50 fine.

"People are more accepting of the rule at this point – I think because they see the improvement in our winter air quality."

Aaron Richardson, spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said that in 2008 the agency made it illegal to burn wood or other solid fuel in a fireplace or other wood-burning device when the district issues a Spare the Air alert. The rule bans wood-burning fireplaces in new construction or remodeling. Fines for violators are "waived if you take a smoke awareness class. If you don't take the class, the fine will now be $100 for first-time offenders and $500 for a second time."

Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, including most of Southern California, said the agency adopted a mandatory Check Before You Burn program last year; it has called for two no-burn days so far this year. "Wood smoke is not as big a part of the pollution pie here as it is in areas of Central and Northern California. But it still is a significant problem."

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