Sonomans flaunt wood-burn rules


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.”


To report complaints to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, or to check the current status, go to sparetheair.org or baaqmd.gov. Residents can also call one of the following phone numbers:

Wood smoke complaints or to check current status: 877-466-2876

Report smoking vehicles: 800-394-2878

General air pollution complaints: 

Register for automatic phone alerts: 

  • Phineas Worthington

    We have too many well intentioned, but unenforceable laws requiring neighbors to turn each other in to be enforced. They poison our interactions.

    • Anne Shapiro

      Think globally. Act locally. A visit from a nice person from the BAAQMD reminding someone not to choke the neighborhood with garbage in their fireplace on a foggy non burn day does not require an incentive for them to obey the law. It is called education.. If you had to call to have an illegally parked car removed from your driveway, would that person get a market based incentive to stop doing that? A fine IS an incentive. You pay to play. Purposefully filling the air we breath with toxic smoke is a violation of my rights. But then I assume you are a sympathizer of entitled cigarette smokers also.

      • Phineas Worthington

        A fine is a punishment, a negative incentive true. A more positive market based incentive would be dirt cheap clean natural gas that would make spending time and money on wood fires a big waste.

        Just because you cannot conceive of a different mode of human interaction at this time other than using legal coercion, it does not mean there isn’t a different paradigm to pursue.

        The law is supposed to be a shield, we don’t need more laws that are used as weapons.

        • Anne Shapiro

          Oh I can conceive of the utopia where society is so compliant law is not needed and the air is clean with natural gas heat. We can all dream of and even work toward that day. Until then, I will live in the realistic world of scofflaws that affect the air I breathe. The law IS a shield for those of us who care about basic things like that now…not to wait for a futuristic paradigm shift.

  • Anne Shapiro

    This is NOT unenforceable. I have had success reporting to the BAAQMD anonymously. Choose your poison I guess. I prefer to breath healthy air. Get enlightened.

    • Phineas Worthington

      I don’t know why you want to live in a society where neighbors turn each other in for crimes where no one’s rights are violated. Its reminiscent of some recent past political systems that did not work out so well in the end. Any idea on how to curb emissions coming to us from Asia?

      Enlightened would imply market based incentives to change behavior rather than using blunt force of law, fines, and imprisonment.

      • Chris Scott

        Mr Worthington;
        That approach did work for the old industry when they assured the Fed Gov that if the they did not force a regulation the oil industry would develop a new and improved deep sea oil well blow-out valve. That was more than 10 years before the BP gulf oil disaster; the oil industry was still using the old valve they promised to replace. the oil industry never did develop a replacement. Only as a result of federal sanctions, new regulations and law suits did the oil industry come up with a new valve. Surprising how little time it took to do it once the gulf spill happened.

        That was a market based approach, they believed the industry and let them regulate themselves.

      • Chris Scott

        Mr Worthington;
        That market based approach worked well with the oil industry and their deep sea oil well blowout valve. The fed gov believed the oil producers when they promised to develop a new and improved valve more than ten years before the BP gulf oil disaster.

        The valve that failed was the same old valve. The investigation into the spill revealed the oil industry found it would be expensive to develop a new valve, so they didn’t. The oil producers said they though the old valve would be ok – although those ten year old tests at the time showed the old valve had a high failure rate at depths well above that of the failed well, and that failure potential rose with increased depth and pressure.

        When it comes to health, safety and the environment a market based approach has proven to be a failure.

        • Phineas Worthington

          Mr/Mrs (?) Scott,
          I understand, we can’t be trusted with freedom. No surprise coming from someone who does not think self-ownership is an inalienable right.

          Consider this, we are witness to the greatest energy revolution of modern time with the bountiful production of clean natural gas. The market based incentive I think would work best is if natural gas were so cheap, it would be ridiculous to spend time or money on wood fires for heat. That’s just one idea of how freedom and a market incentive would work in this example.


          • Chris Scott

            Mr, Ms or Mrs Worthington;
            That’s not fair. :-( I don’t know what self-ownership means. I’ve asked before, How can one own one’s self? Let’s say one can own one’s self, wouldn’t that have to be two self’s owned; the physical body and the soul? If you could enplane it or define it they maybe some discussion might ensue. Barring that we are without.

            If this is all about property being an unalienable/inalienable right(?) allow me to clarify; property does not meet the definition of unalienable or inalienable. Please look it up.

            In the original formulation of unalienable/inalienable there were only two, life and liberty. The DoI seems to be where a third was added, Pursuit of Happiness. The few sources I reviewed did not narrow the source(s) further. Whether the Pursuit of Happiness is separate and unique or simply subsumed in life and liberty has probably been debated endlessly.

            Sidebar: The DoI uses unalienable. There is a difference between un… and in… but things have gotten mashed up over time and now they’re pretty much used interchangeably.

            Gas? There’s an interesting topic. A little more complicated than “freedom and market incentives” would imply. Is there a free market for gas? The major energy conglomerates own oil and coal, and gas; greatest profits from oil and coal. Consumption? The infrastructure isn’t there. Gas is an inefficient energy source containing a lot less energy than oil or coal – Fuel heat contents;
            Coal = 19,530,000 Btu per Short Ton (2,000 lbs)
            Natural Gas = 1,021,000 Btu per 1,000 Cubic Feet (Mcf)
            Petroleum Fuel Oil = 5,871,390 Btu per Barrel (42 gallons)

            This means gas fired power plants are the least efficient. And, “Climate Benefits of Natural Gas May Be Overstated” by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, Jan. 25, 2011.

            When Exxon’s TV ad says we invest $300+M in renewables and improved energy efficiency the context is,; 1.) Exxon alone, 2012 roughly $35+ Billion in profits; 2.) their business is selling energy, why would they want to rush to reduce their sales? Then again, maybe gas being less efficient they could sell more for more profits. Then there are the oil, coal and gas industry subsidies, while they make billions and billions of profits.

            Can’t say that’s a profile of freedom and market incentives.

            You might find interesting;

  • Megan Lee

    It’s a shame that more people do not abide by Spare the Air days. We are part of a community and all of our community members should be considered before lighting a fire. My personal preference for a fire does not and should never trump the health issues burning wood can cause for others.

    Not only do we observe Spare the Air days (I even have the free STA app on my smart phone to ensure easy access to information). but we also discuss STA with our children. They take great pride in knowing our family only burns wood on designated days. I hope this article will encourage more people to abide by the STA guidelines.

  • JR Anips

    Seems as if the Sonoma Index wants us to rat out our neighbors no matter what it is, what Mr. Frances failed to inform us was that if the only fuel for heat one has is wood you are allowed to burn

    • Don Frances

      “Homes where woodstoves or fireplaces are the only source of heat are exempt.” –5th paragraph

  • Fred Hodgson

    Does anyone know how they predict scientifically the pollution level two days ahead?

    • Chris Scott

      Mr Hodgson:
      Google Search Term, “how do they predict air polution”
      Below content from two of the link results’

      Atmospheric dispersion modeling, From Wikipedia
      Atmospheric dispersion modeling is the mathematical simulation of how air pollutants disperse in the ambient atmosphere. It is performed with computer programs that solve the mathematical equations and algorithms which simulate the pollutant dispersion. The dispersion models are used to estimate or to predict the downwind concentration of air pollutants or toxins emitted from sources such as industrial plants, vehicular traffic or accidental chemical releases.

      Researchers at WSU able to predict levels of air pollutants: By Rachel Dubrovin Published: Sep 20, 2012

      PULLMAN, WA – Over the last week, the Palouse’s beautiful view of the rolling hills disappeared into a haze of smoke due to all the wildfires in the region.

      Atmospheric researchers at WSU are able to analyze the air in Pullman to find out exactly what’s polluting it.

      “This was actually over last weekend when we had the brunt of that smoke episode,” said WSU Atmospheric Science grad student Graham Vanderschelden.

      The blue line represents benzyne, a pollutant that typically comes from vehicle exhaust. It’s relatively low compared to the red line, which represents formaldehyde, a pollutant that is associated with smoke from wildfires.

      “It’s pretty concerning to me because I went on a long run on Friday morning and looking at the concentrations it’s like well, maybe I shouldn’t have been out there,” said Vanderschelden.

      Not only do they measure the pollutants, they can also predict air pollution levels using the AIRPACT computer model. Every night, AIRPACT combines information about various pollutant levels with a weather forecast from the University of Washington to predict air pollution levels across the region for the next 64 hours.

      “It’s kind of a kitchen sink, everything including the kitchen sink kind of model,” said WSU Professor of Environmental Engineering Brian Lamb.

      AIRPACT provides information about many different types of pollutants. Lamb showed me that in some areas like Pullman, their predictions are fairly accurate. But cities like Lewiston are harder to predict because it’s in a valley. Right now the PM2.5 measurement is the most attention grabbing.

      “Those are very, very tiny particles,” said Lamb. “You can’t see them except for when there’s a lot of them, like we see with smoke. But they’re the particles that are regulated for their health impact because you can breathe them deeply down into your lungs where they can cause problems.”

      Lamb has been developing and improving AIRPACT since 2001. AIRPACT-Three is the version that is currently in use, while the fourth is being perfected. The AIRPACT-Four map will have three times the resolution, and it will be even more accurate.