Q&A: Sacramento Valley air quality rated unhealthy; district explains no-burn policy

Air quality in recent days has been unhealthy for sensitive groups and a wood-burning ban remains in place in the Sacramento Valley through today, the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District reports.

If the weather cooperates and brings expected winds, the ban in effect since Dec. 9 could be lifted Thursday.

Lori Kobza, spokeswoman for the district, explained in an interview the no-burn policy for the Sacramento region.

What causes air pollution in the winter? How is it different from air pollution in the summer?

It’s not unusual to have high particulate matter in the winter months. It’s primarily woodsmoke, which is why we have the ban. When you have wind or rain, it doesn’t matter. But when you have this high-pressure ridge, the particulate matter can’t escape. All this stagnant air acts like a lid on top of a bowl and traps pollutants inside the bowl, where we breathe it. The state needs rain, which would wash it away. Starting Thursday, there is not too much rain forecasted, but the winds will clean things out.

In the summer, the pollution is ground-level ozone, a gas. Smog comes from mobile sources such as cars, trucks, any equipment with an internal combustion engine. Ozone is formed by ultraviolet rays from the sun hitting nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds, where it goes through a photochemical reaction and becomes ground-level ozone pollution.

How do you decide when to declare a no-burn day? Is there a level of air pollution that has to be reached before you make that determination?

Two years ago, we attained the federal 2.5 health standard for particulate matter. We have to maintain that for 10 years. (The 2.5 refers to the size of the particulates, which are measured in micrometers).

When we get (more than) 35 micrograms per cubit meter of particulate matter, we will call for a ban on wood-burning.

What happens if the Sacramento metropolitan area doesn’t maintain the federal health standard?

If we don’t, people are breathing bad air. You might like a warm, cozy fire, but there’s nothing good about it. The health impact of particulate matter is undisputable. It’s pretty bad stuff. If you smell smoke, you’re breathing pollution. It’s going into your lungs and your bloodstream, and it’s a good idea not to be outside.

For us, it may mean more regulation on businesses in the area to attain required levels. We are charged to do what we can with our authority.

What has been the track record of the area for maintaining air quality this season? Has the ban on burning worked?

We have the law, where from Nov. 1 through the end of February, people must check to see if it’s legal to burn.

There are multiple stages in the program, starting with days when it’s legal to burn or days when burning is merely discouraged.

In Stage 1, there is no burning without an exemption, which can be granted for fireplace inserts or pellet stoves – devices where no visible smoke is emitted. In Stage 2, all burning is prohibited.

The district since Nov. 1 has already had 13 no-burn days, matching the number for the entire winter monitoring period that started Nov. 1, 2012 and lasted through Feb. 28 of this year.

Is there a penalty if someone is caught using their fireplace on a no-burn day? What is it, and do you issue citations?

“Check Before You Burn” is a law, so there is a penalty. First-time violators can be fined $50, but usually, we require them to pass a woodsmoke awareness course.

There is an increased penalty for multiple violations.

We send inspectors out to see if smoke is coming from the chimney, take photos and document everything. We don’t just take the word of the person who’s reporting the violation.

What you can see is bad, but what you can’t see is worse. The more wood-burning there is, the more the particulate matter that exists, the greater the health hazard.

We’ve had 31 violations since November, which we have mailed out. And we have several dozen more being processed.

The majority of people don’t burn for heat. It’s an aesthetic thing. It’s more important that they don’t burn when we tell them not to.