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.
Wood smoke can “absolutely” kill, Flannigan said, adding, “It’s especially harmful to elderly people, children and anyone that has a heart or respiratory condition.” To protect those people from their fire-burning neighbors, the district has been declaring Spare the Air days since 2008.
According to district literature, “Fine particulates are the leading health risk from air pollution in the Bay Area, accounting for more than 90 percent of premature deaths related to air pollution.”
Each winter season goes from November to the end of February, and the number of complaints and violations varies from year to year, due mainly to the wetness or dryness of the winter. With the current winter one of the driest in recorded history, the BAAQMD has declared many more Spare the Air days than ever before: well over two-dozen already, with another two months to go. The previous record was 15 Spare the Air days in the winter of 2011-12.
Recently, the region has been on a several-day streak of successive no-burn days, including Friday. “Wood burning is banned both indoors and outdoors on Friday, for the full 24 hours,” the district reported.
“The weather and air pollution really go hand-in-hand,” Flannigan said. That’s because “still, stable (weather) conditions allow the particulate matter to build up in our region to unhealthful levels.”
Over the years, he said, fewer Bay Area residents have been burning on no-burn days. As for those who still do, Flannigan believes they generally are not well informed on the consequences of wood burning.
“We’re trying to get them to understand why the rule exists, and how they can be in compliance with it,” he said. “The rule doesn’t exist to inconvenience people, but we can’t ignore the impact of wood smoke on our region.”
Still, residents’ motives for burning wood are complex, and may include – then disregard – health risks as part of their consideration.
“We’re negligent, horrible people,” joked one serial violator, a Sonoma Valley resident who also asked not to be named. Recently, “We not only had a fire in our fireplace, we had a fire in our pit outside when guests were over.”
Asked why they burn wood on Spare the Air days, the resident responded, “Because we’re cold. We really do keep the heat way, way down.” And then there’s the ambiance: “I walk in the door and that fire is going, it’s very beautiful at the end of a long day. I do love it.”
Wood smoke complaints or to check current status: 877-466-2876
Report smoking vehicles: 800-394-2878
General air pollution complaints: 800-334-6367
Register for automatic phone alerts: 800-430-1515