To many Sonomans, nothing seems more natural than a warm fire crackling in the hearth on a cold winter night.
But on some of those cold nights – especially this year, due to the unusually dry winter we’ve been having – wood fires are verboten. Violators won’t get a knock on the door, but a ticket for $100 (or much more for repeat offenders) may arrive in the mail, courtesy of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
“Particulate matter impacts all of us,” said Tom Flannigan, spokesman for the district, which is tasked with monitoring air pollution levels and enforcing compliance on no-burn days. “And when we can smell it in the air, we’re all being affected by it.”
It’s neighbors who are going to smell that smoke and report it to the BAAQMD, resulting in a visit by one of the district’s 60 inspectors. They cover the district’s nine-county Bay Area region, which includes southern Sonoma County – encompassing Sonoma and all of Sonoma Valley up to Santa Rosa.
Flannigan explained that reporting one’s neighbor to the district does not trigger an automatic ticket. Rather, the district sends that person a “wood smoke awareness packet” by mail, and will probably send out an inspector at a later date. If, on that later date, a fire is detected on a Spare the Air day, a first-time fine of $100 is sent by mail. That jumps to $500 on a second violation, and can go up from there. (Homes where woodstoves or fireplaces are the only source of heat are exempt. Homes with an installed heat source are not exempt.)
Even then, after the first ticket, there’s an out: “In lieu of paying that fine they can take a wood smoke education class,” Flannigan said. The online or mail-in class “helps them understand what the public health concerns are due to particulate matter from wood smoke.”
Those opting to not take the class, or to continue burning on Spare the Air days, get a ticket. Sonoma County is the worst offender, with more total violations – 263 out of 1,013 complaints – over the previous four winter seasons than any other Bay Area county, according to BAAQMD numbers. By comparison, Marin had 153 violations out of 2,119 complaints during that period, and San Francisco had just one violation out of 288 complaints – showing that the number of violations is not a function of the number of complainers, nor of population density.
“It seems to us that many households in Sonoma blatantly disregard Spare the Air alerts, especially when it comes to burning wood in fireplaces,” said one Sonoma resident who asked not to be named. (“We have had conversations with our neighbors about Spare the Air alerts, and they know they are violating the burn bans,” the resident said. “I’m afraid my name associated publicly with a story on the topic would be very detrimental to friendships and peace in the neighborhood.”)
Keeping up good relations can be a factor in reporting one’s neighbor, although the BAAQMD phone number for reporting complaints – 877 4NO BURN – guarantees anonymity. And given the stakes, some neighbors consider tattling to be worth it.